Intro: What does God want you to do more than anything else? One way to answer that question is to ask another. What is the most repeated command in scripture? Viewed comprehensively, it is not a prohibition about money, sexual conduct, or power. God tells us more than anything else (expressed in different ways) to be joyful.God expresses this in numerous exhortations to “praise God”; “do not be afraid”; “give thanks” or “rejoice”. He commands me to rejoice.
- Philippians 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! (Our sermon theme for August). I want to discuss the subject of joy in the life of the Christian. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is punctuated with the call to rejoice. The apostle Paul uses the Greek words for joy and rejoicing sixteen times in only 104 verses in Philippians. This is especially noteworthy when we remember that Paul is writing this letter as a prisoner of the Roman empire – surrounded by obstacles to a joyful life himself. Which brings this home to us. How can a Christian today be joyful when our world is changing for the worse right before our eyes? I hope to study the words of 4:4 in the context of Philippians. But today I want to consider the subject of joy more generally in the Bible.
I. Joy in the Bible: How is joy characterized in the text of the Bible?
A. In the OT, the most common term in Hebrew is simchah (sim-chaw). It is often connected with external circumstances and expressed outwardly (singing, clapping, shouting). Joy is translated from several Hebrew terms. It is difficult to arrive at a concise or simple definition of joy. Consider these uses and distinctions.
1. The joy of God’s blessings. Joy is used to depict a wide range of human experiences or events, such as marriage (Prov 5:18) and the birth of children (Psalm 113:9), the gathering of the harvest. But the biblical concept of joy goes beyond just a response to the favorable circumstances of life.
a. For God’s people, joy is connected with the activity of God. He produces joy in the hearts and lives of His people by creating favorable circumstances in their behalf. David rejoices that God has delivered him from his enemies (Psalm 63:11). In the context of happy events, joy is presented as the natural emotional response to a blessing from God.
b. Fundamental to the Old Testament understanding of joy are God’s acts in history. Perhaps to be included here are those passages where the natural creation – the sun, the pastures and meadows – act or sing with joy – The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 19:5 that the sun runs its course with joy (smiling sun on Jimmy Dean Sausage?) Psalm 65:12-13 – The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. 13 The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing. The creation is naturally happy to serve God – shouldn’t we be?
c. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and the return of the exiles from captivity were occasions for gladness and joy.–Ex. 18:9-11; Jer. 31:1-19.
2. The joy of God’s presence. The psalms speak of the joy more than any other OT book. Often joy describes the emotional approach to worship. Psalm 122:1 – I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go the house of the Lord’ Psalm 16:11 – You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
a. Joy characterizes Israel’s corporate worship life and the Israelites are commanded to rejoice in worship 16:13-15 – 13 “You shall observe the Feast of Tabernacles seven days, when you have gathered from your threshing floor and from your winepress. 14 And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant and the Levite, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who are within your gates. 15 Seven days you shall keep a sacred feast to the Lord your God in the place which the Lord chooses, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely rejoice. Even the law of God itself is a source of joy. Psalm 119:4 – I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, As much as in all riches.
B. Joy in the N.T. – The most common Greek noun that is translated as joy, or rejoicing is “chara” (Khar-ah)- it means delight or gladness; The verb [used in Phil. 4:4] is chairo (khah’-ee-ro) – to be “cheerful”, calmly happy or well-off; (Vines). As in the O.T., joy is a fundamental response to God’s blessing. It comes from God, and is often associated with God’s presence.
1. Joy is associated with God’s presence in the world. Luke depicts the incarnation of Jesus as one occasion of joy after another. The parents of John the Baptist will rejoice at John’s birth: Luke 1:14 – He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, The angel’s greeting (chaire) to Mary followed by “highly favored,” a word of the same family in Greek, may be taken as a command to rejoice as the Redeemer’s mother (Luke 1:28). Shepherds are told that the news of Jesus’ birth is an occasion for great joy for all people (Luke 2:10 – I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.) Matthew tells us that the Magi, upon finding the infant Jesus, are “overjoyed” (Matt 2:10).
2. Joy is associated with activity of God in salvation. In fact, God Himself is seen as rejoicing over the restoration and salvation of those who were lost. In Luke 15, Jesus describes a shepherd who finds the one sheep who is lost and he rejoices (chairōn). He calls his friends to rejoice with him. He compares this joy to the joy in heaven if one sinner repents. He tells a story about a woman who loses one silver coin (out of the ten she had) and she rejoices with her friends. In this parable, however, we read that there is joy “in the presence of the angels of God” (15:10). Those who are with God also celebrate the finding of the lost (salvation). God’s elation over the saving of the lost is sharable or even contagious. The Father’s joy over the return of his rebellious son in Luke 15 may be the most vivid picture of joy in all of the Bible. And the impetus of that parable falls on the unjoyful and complaining older brother who refuses to share in the joy of the occasion.
a. This point is made in Matthew in the parable of the talents. When two of the three servants are obedient, the Master invites them to “enter into the joy of the Lord” (Master). The master rewards the servants who have been “good and faithful” he invites them to “enter into the joy” of their master (Matt. 25:21, 23). The joy of the Lord may be the personal joy of God over saved sinners. He invites us to share in His emotions. Or it could simply be a reference to the reward of the faithfulness that God provides. If I am faithful He will give me joy. This leads to a third view of joy in the N.T.
3. Joy is the fruit of the Spirit of God. Gal 5:22 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” God provides the joy He commands. We do not get it by forcing up the sides of our mouth to form a smile despite the circumstances of life. Nor is this joy a mystical or inexplicable gift from God. It comes to us through the knowledge of the activity of God in our behalf. When the Ethiopian understood the message and obeyed the command of God, he went on his way rejoicing.
II. 3 Concepts of Joy: The scriptures present joy (gladness, delight) as an emotional response to the events of life. When do we, or should we rejoice? To fully understand when and why God commands me to rejoice, I need to see some distinctions. We have often said that joy is not happiness. Happiness is dependent on circumstances (happenings), but joy transcends the happenings of life and can exist even in unhappy circumstances. God promises joy but does not promise happiness. This characterization is true, but possibly not comprehensive enough. (We can oversimplify and miss the truth). Joy is depicted in three concepts (or contexts) in the Bible:
A. Joy that Comes from Good Circumstances. There are biblical texts that describe joy as a human response to a variety of occasions or events that we recognize as good. [such as friendship or a wedding or tasting good food]. We are made glad, we sing, we shout for joy, or rejoice in the event itself. In fact, we recognize them as “good” events BECAUSE they naturally elicit joy. Eccl 3:11-13 – He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. 12 I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, 13 and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor — it is the gift of God. Note: occasions of secular joys (from the events of human endeavor – i.e. feasting, marriage, victory in military endeavors, and successful financial undertakings.) are used as metaphors for deeper spiritual joys provided through God’s work.
B. Joy that Comes After Bad Circumstances – Ps 30:5 – Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning… v. 11 – You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, In a number of biblical texts, joy and rejoicing are contrasted with sorrow, grieving, mourning, and the like. Joy is depicted as the response that comes after the bad circumstances are removed. It may be bad now, but joy will come. Weeping is replaced with joy, but they are not experienced simultaneously.
1. In Psalm 51:8 the penitent sinner prays, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice”. David anticipates or hopes for a chance to rejoice when God reacts favorably to his circumstances. Thus he prays, “restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12) He is not rejoicing now because his guilt and God’s punishment are present. He can only turn to God in repentance and beg God for relief. When God turns his face toward him he will rejoice. Indeed, in the present situation it would be inappropriate to rejoice.
a. The captives in Babylon could not sing their songs of Zion (rejoicing), while being punished in exile. (Ps. 137:1-4). But when the Lord restores His people, they laugh and rejoice. We rejoice AFTER God changes our circumstances. Psalm 126 – When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, We were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, And our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” 3 The Lord has done great things for us, And we are glad. 4 Bring back our captivity, O Lord, As the streams in the South. 5 Those who sow in tears Shall reap in joy. 6 He who continually goes forth weeping, Bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, Bringing his sheaves with him.
b. Similarly, Isaiah describes the period of God’s punishment, exile and injustice as a time when no one was joyful. It was inappropriate to be joyful when the people were being punished for disobedience. But when God breaks the yoke of the oppressor, the people rejoice (Isa. 9:3). When God opens up a highway of holiness and ransoms His people, then the people will come to Zion with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, And sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa 35:8-10). Joy and rejoicing are the fruit of a hope realized.
c. This concept of joy is found in the Gospel of John. John 16:20-22 – Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. 21 A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. On the one hand, joy vanquishes sorrow; the two do not exist simultaneously. You will weep, then comes the joy. The disciples will grieve and mourn because Jesus will be killed; they will rejoice when they see him, because that will indicate both that Jesus is alive and that he is now with the Father and will be with them.
C. Joy that Exists with Bad Circumstances – This third concept of joy is connected with the previous one… It rests in the hope of God’s promises and God’s work in the future… But it goes further. Joy will come after God changes my circumstances, but can joy be experienced simultaneously with bad circumstances?
1. This concept is primarily developed in the New Testament, and clearly in view in the teaching of the apostle Paul. Phil. 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always…” The word “always” is compelling. God expects me to rejoice, even in the bad times. Note: This enjoined joyfulness is not applicable to the circumstances of God’s righteous judgment against my sin. If God does not turn his face toward me, there is no basis for joy. I cannot and should not rejoice in my disobedience. But if God has saved me… If I have confident hope that He will deliver me… I rejoice.
2. Paul was joyful even as he suffered. Paul described himself as sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10). It was a joy, notwithstanding the circumstances of his imprisonment and affliction. He not only had a severe confidence in his final salvation, but he also had faith that he was sharing in the sufferings of his Lord and a hope that he will share in Christ’s resurrection.His conviction that he is joined to Christ in his suffering, and the hope that he will be joined to Christ in his resurrection, converge to give him joy in his present dismal circumstances. In that sense, joy notwithstanding is indeed a joy that comes only through faith and obedience to the will of God. It is rooted in the example of Jesus. He was truly a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa. 53) yet was anointed with the oil of gladness more than His companions. (Psalm 45). In His most profound suffering He was joyful. In fact the Hebrew writer tells us that “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2)
3. Other authors of the NT also write of having joy in the midst of trials. Both James and Peter exhort Christians to face trials with joyfulness. “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” (James 1:2); Peter says… 1 Peter 1:6-9 – In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith — the salvation of your souls. We are not joyful because we are afflicted, but because affliction can serve to test and establish one’s faithfulness, and that results, in the end, in salvation.
Conclusion: If Joy is the fruit of the Spirit, made possible, even amidst suffering, through our hope and confidence in God’s work of salvation, we can say that God creates the only conditions for joy. This is the witness of the Biblical texts:
- when God restores the fortunes of Zion, then there is rejoicing;
- when the shepherd finds the one sheep that was lost, then all are to rejoice;
- when God establishes His Kingdom,then there is “righteousness, peace and joy in the holy Spirit.”
- Joy is rooted in God’s identity as the creator of all that is good.
- Joy can only be experienced by those who participate in and acknowledge God’s deliverance through Christ. We are called to rejoice “in the Lord”. Are you joyful? Are you in the Lord?