Here is part one of a two part sermon series on Christian joy that I preached this past Sunday (if you prefer, you can listen to it here):
Charles Spurgeon, instructing a group of seminary students on sermon delivery, said, “When you speak of heaven, let your face light up with a heavenly gleam. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory. And when you speak of hell–well, then your usual face will do.” As funny as that is, there is some truth to it. Sadly, too often, Christians lack joy in their life. And I am hear today to exhort you with Paul the apostle, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Elsewhere Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). As Christians, joy ought to be a characteristic of our life. Others should know of your joy in the Lord. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit AND Jesus says in John 15 that one of the reasons that he came is so that His joy may be in us and so that our joy may be full (John 15:11). So once again we are called to rejoice in the LORD, and not just some times but ALWAYS. But in order to understand and appreciate and heed this command we need to understand what true Christian joy is this morning, which is fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Theme: Christian Joy
- What Christian Joy Is and Is Not (Part 1: morning sermon)
- How We Cultivate Christian Joy (Part 2: afternoon sermon)
1. What Christian Joy Is and Is Not
Phil Ryken says that, “Joy. . .is not so much happiness as contentment. Joy is the ability to take good cheer from the gospel. . . It is not, therefore, a spontaneous response to some temporary pleasure. It does not depend on circumstance at all. It is based rather on rejoicing in one’s eternal identity in Jesus Christ.” And is this not what Paul says in Phil. 4? He doesn’t just say, “rejoice!” He says, “rejoice IN THE LORD!”, not rejoice that things are going well for you right now or even though things are going bad for you right now, stop being such a Debbie Downer and rejoice anyway. NO! Paul says, rejoice IN THE LORD. In fact, speaking of contentment, Paul goes on and says: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13). And remember, Paul was writing all of these things while he was in prison for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
Another way to define what Christian joy is and is not is as Tim Keller puts it: “Joy is delight in God and his salvation for the sheer beauty and worth of who He is. Its opposite is hopelessness/despair, its counterfeit is elation that comes with blessings not the Blesser! Mood swings based on circumstances.” So you see Christian joy is NOT simply a happy-go-lucky attitude despite what I am going through; Nor is it mere optimism for the future; Nor is it mere happiness in present circumstances that are good (these are all counterfeits to what real Christian joy is. . .not that these things are necessarily wrong. . .they just aren’t to be confused with genuine Christian joy because even a non-Christian can have these things). Furthermore, Christian joy is not incompatible with sorrow and grief. . . You see, the opposite fruit of joy is not sorrow as one would think. Rather the opposite fruit of joy is as Keller points out, hoplessness/despair.
You see, Christian joy is much more deep and profound than these things. It truly is a fruit that can only be produced by the Holy Spirit that only Christians can have. Simply put, Christian joy is rooted in the good news of the person and work of Jesus Christ and is produced in us by the Holy Spirit through faith in God’s Word. R.C. Sproul: “The mandate of Christ, “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” is not superficial cheerfulness or irrational escapism but is grounded in cosmic reality.” And so, a Christian sermon on joy is not a superficial happy clappy pep rally despite our present circumstances. . .rather it’s a deep, heartfelt, Spirit-wrought rejoicing in the Lord that’s rooted in God’s Word to us about Christ’s present circumstances and our union with Him. Now, all of that said, where do we see this in the Bible?
Well, once again, the Bible reveals this to us in many places. Joy is an attribute of our Triune God. All three members of the Trinity delight in one another and they delight in the work of their hands in Creation and Redemption. But the supreme revelation of God for us is the person and work of Jesus. He is the one who bore the fruit of the Spirit perfectly in his life on our behalf, for our salvation, and as our supreme example. And He is the vine and we are the branches, apart from Him we can do nothing. But as we abide in Him and behold His glory we will bear much fruit by the Holy Spirit. And so we must look to Jesus to know what Christian joy looks like. And the author of Hebrews talks about Jesus’ joy in Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
Here we see that Jesus had joy in his life. But as I said earlier joy in the Christian life is not incompatible with sorrow. It often overlaps with sorrow in our life. And we see that especially with Jesus. The author of Hebrews tells us that it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. And when he says that Jesus had joy, he doesn’t mean that Jesus had some kind of superficial happiness on the way to the cross, and especially while he was on the cross. In fact, we know from Isaiah 53 that Jesus is characterized as being a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. But you see his delight, his joy, was in the knowledge that he was being obedient to His Father’s will and redeeming His people. Isaiah 53 also tells us that through suffering, Christ would see his offspring, and that his days would be prolonged and that the will of the Lord would prosper in his hand. He goes on and says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous” (Isa. 53:11). You see, Jesus didn’t take joy simply in suffering and dying on the cross. Rather, he took joy in knowing that he was redeeming his Bride. He took joy in knowing that one day he would see his bride walking down that aisle, white and glorious, at that wedding supper of the Lamb in the new heavens and new earth. And he took joy in knowing that it would please his Father and bring him great glory.
How do we cultivate the joy of Christ in our life, that same kind of joy that he experienced even as he went to the cross? We all long for that kind of indestructible joy, don’t we? J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic trilogy Lord of the Rings, in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, says that every good story is a reflection of the Gospel story. All good stories have some kind of catastrophe that gets to a point where it seems like the protagonist has no way out, where all hope is lost, and it’s all going to end in tragedy. But then there’s that great turn of events where the hero is saved, his enemies are conquered and they all live, what?. . .happily ever after. Tolkien even came up with his own word for this type of story. He calls it a eucatastrophe. Eu is a Greek prefix which means good. So a eucatastrophe is a catastrophe that turns to good in the end. And Tolkien says that the stories we love most are eucatastophes. And it’s true. I saw three movies this week with my wife (we went on a date night binge since grandparents are in town to babysit our kids). And all three movies had some catastrophe that turned to good in the end. And that’s because we are all longing for redemption. In this world of sorrow, we are all longing for indestructible joy in the end. And Tolkien says the only difference between those stories that we love and the Gospel is that the Gospel is the eucatastrophe that came true! The life, death and resurrection of Christ is the eucatastrophe of human history. And Jesus says to you and me today, as he said to his disciples: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
But we don’t have to wait until heaven to experience that joy now. Jesus was originally speaking about his death and resurrection appearances. They had great sorrow when Jesus was in the grave but then he rose from the dead on the third day and appeared to his disciples and they rejoiced greatly to see him face to face once again, risen victorious over the grave. And Jesus gave them his Spirit so that no one would ever be able to take their joy from them (John 20:22). And he gives you and me His Spirit as well to produce the joy of the Lord in our hearts more and more until Christ comes again to bring us into the glory of the new heavens and new earth where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand (Gal. 3:13-14; Gal. 5:22; Ps. 16:11). In the words of Peter: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now 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” (1 Pet. 1:8-9).