THE JOY OF THE LORD
Jesus the Joy-Bringer
When angels announced the birth of Jesus, they brought “good tidings of great joy” as the familiar words of the Christmas story read (Luke 2:10). We don’t say “tidings” anymore, but we get the message. They were announcing the good news of Jesus’ birth, and that good news would bring great joy to all people.
In fact, Jesus was already bringing great joy to people before he was born. His mother, Mary, rejoiced at the sheer thought of all that God would accomplish through her son (Luke 1:47). And Jesus even caused his cousin ‘John the Baptist’ to leap for joy when he was still just ‘John the baby’ in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44).
And yet, as strangely ironic as it is, many Christians worship the One who brings joy to all people without being very joyful themselves. Instead of rejoicing, they grumble and complain. Instead of having joyful hope, they opt for fearful panic or for cynical pessimism. And instead of laughter and gratitude, they possess enough self-loathing and guilt to feed five thousand.
If the followers of Jesus the Joy-Bringer aren’t joyful, then clearly something has been lost in translation—and I’m not talking about King Jimmy. The greatest reason for a lack of joy among people who follow Jesus is that they have not understood very well the message they believe. And this is not the first time that has happened.
Do Not Grieve; Rejoice!
The book of Nehemiah tells the story of when God’s people returned from their exile in Babylon to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and resume worship in the temple of God. In celebration of their return, the people asked a teacher named Ezra to open the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible) to read it and teach it to them. “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:8).
But something odd happened as Ezra was preaching his sermon: the people began to cry tears of guilt as they listened to God’s word (Neh. 8:9). Even though Ezra was preaching his best, the message was still not getting through. So he stopped, and he enlisted the help of Nehemiah and other men standing nearby. Together they shouted, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep! Go and enjoy a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:9-10).
God’s message was not, “You’re all evil. There is no hope. So beat yourselves, and cry endless streams of guilt-ridden tears. And maybe, just maybe, I will look upon your self-affliction and reward you with forgiveness.”
God’s message was—and still is—good news of great joy for all people. It’s the good news that, sinful though we are, our sins have been forgiven! “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And not only that, but the same Jesus who died to forgive our sins has also risen from the dead to conquer death itself (Rom. 8:18-24). And if even death and sin could not hold him back, then what could possibly separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? (Rom. 8:31-39).
Is the Joy of the Lord Your Strength?
The only way that message could ever fail to produce joy in our lives is this: we are relying on something else to be our source of strength to get through life instead of rejoicing in what we have been given in Jesus. It’s like saying, “I know that God has promised me to rescue me, to heal me, and to be with me forever. I know that an endless waterfall of eternal delights flows from his right hand. And I know that though I actually deserve death and hell, instead he freely gives all of this to me in Jesus. And I know that Jesus says whatever I lose in this life for his sake will be given back one hundred times over. I know all of that, but I what I really want is this _______.”
What could you ever put in that blank to stack up against all that you have been given in Jesus? A better job? A new home? A spouse? A child? Fame? Money? Knowledge? Acceptance? Power? Comfort? Whatever we might be tempted to put in that blank, it grows strangely dim in the light of Jesus’ glory and grace.
So we now see that the cause of so much joylessness is this: we have come to count something in this world as being more valuable, more precious than than God himself. It is the original sin of loving and pursuing the gift above the Giver, of wanting the things that come from God more than we want God himself and all that comes from being in his presence. Instead of the joy that comes from the Lord, we look for joy apart from him in things that do not last and cannot guarantee eternal joy.
How the Joy of the Lord Becomes Your Strength
Yet we must not respond to this by taking another step toward self-loathing and guilt. To repent of joylessness does not mean to beat up yourself over one more failure; it means to begin rejoicing in the Lord, as we always ought to do (Phil 4:4). It means to set the momentary pleasures of the world next to the eternal pleasures of God. It means you no longer let your happiness come from something you might lose, but instead draw strength from the knowledge of what you can never lose in Jesus.
For when we do this, when we remember the precious and very great promises of the Lord to us, then we will find a kind of unshakeable joy take root in our hearts. That is why the Scriptures say, “The joy that comes from the Lord is your strength.” And that strength he gives will enable us to endure the loss of many things with joy, because of the infinitely surpassing worth of what we have gained in Christ.
And this is not just theory; it’s life-giving theology for ‘the real world.’ Look at how Christians who believed the gospel were able to respond to persecution: “When they had called in the apostles, they beat them. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. The apostle left the high council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus” (Acts 5:40-41). And see how they responded to theft: “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had a better and lasting possession” (Heb. 10:34).
The only thing that could enable you to rejoice in the midst of persecution and the loss of all your possessions is the knowledge that Jesus is a better and lasting possession, more valuable than all the world. That is the joy that comes from the Lord, and that is how it becomes your strength.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.