The Gospel of the Kingdom (6)
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” John 15.1
Joy to the world!
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is associated with joy. From the announcement of the angels to the shepherds, through all the healings and good works of His public ministry, to the joy of the disciples on the Emmaus road, the experience of joy features large in the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Kingdom of God, moreover, is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” as Paul reminds us (Rom. 14.7). We should therefore expect joy to have a large place in our lives as the followers of Christ and citizens of His realm.
But what is joy? From where does it come? How can we know it, and what happens when we experience joy? How much should we expect joy to be part of our experience of the Gospel and its benefits? These are some of the questions we need to answer if we are to understand clearly, and experience increasingly, this most fundamental Gospel affection. True joy belongs alone to those who know the Lord and walk according to the counsel of His Word. That joy not only enriches and sustains them; it also enables them to reach out to others with the offer of joy through the Gospel of the Kingdom.
From the seen to the unseen
Like “glory”, “joy” is a term that we often use with only the most meager understanding of what it is. We understand joy to be a pleasant, and therefore, desirable experience. However, many of us find it difficult either to explain joy or to account for it when we know it. Moreover, many of us have difficulty expressing the joy we are experiencing, with the result that our joy is not as infectious or enticing as it otherwise might be.
Habakkuk 3.7-19 is a good place to start in trying to get at the true nature of joy. Let’s make two brief observations.
First, note the progression of the passage, how it moves from what is seen to what is unseen. Our immediate experiences and circumstances are not always such as to elicit from us a response of joy. Nevertheless, Habakkuk appears to have been able, at least in his mind, to rise above even the most unfavorable circumstances to know rejoicing and joy in the Lord.
Joy, it appears, is not determined by what we can see in our immediate environment. Instead, joy is a condition that attaches to knowing the Lord and being able to see past what is seen in order to engage what is not seen. This is part of what gives joy its great appeal: it is not attached to changeable circumstances but to fixed realities and eternal verities in which we participate by grace through faith.
Second, the ability to know joy – in spite of any untoward circumstances or conditions – is dependent on the extent to which one actually knows the Lord and is intimately engaged in a relationship with Him. Habakkuk declared that he would rejoice in the Lord and in His salvation, which he experienced as strength, security, and safety (v. 19). The experience of joy associated with knowing the Lord thus depends on the extent to which we know the experience of His salvation. If salvation is for us only a “by-and-by” experience, then we may struggle to know joy amid the trials that we must endure as we await translation to eternal glory. On the other hand, if salvation is an experience of living in the Kingdom of God, where we know the hope of glory, experienced and expressed, as a daily reality, then our joy will be more constant and full because our relationship with the Lord will be as much for the “here and now” as for the “then and there.”
True joy – a pervasive sense of wellbeing, strength, security, and safety – comes from the Lord. We may find joy in the presence of the Lord and His strength (1 Chron. 16.25-27; Ps. 16.11). God’s Law and, indeed, all His Word, bring delight and joy for the believer (Ps. 119.14, 24, 97, 111). The Spirit of God, Who dwells in each believer, bears the fruit of joy in us (Gal. 5.22; Rom. 14.17). Fellowship in the Body of Christ, with other believers, is also a source of joy (1 Thess. 2.19, 20). And the words of Christ – His counsel, teaching, and promises – bring a deep-seated joy to all who receive them by faith (Jn. 15.11).
The joy believers may know in the Kingdom of God comes always from the Lord, and it is available to them through all these various avenues. We deprive ourselves of this joy when we neglect the Word of God, fail to walk in the Spirit, or do not resort often to the presence of the Lord in prayer. Believers must not look to their circumstances for the joy only God can give.
Joy hereafter and here and now
But when may we expect to know this joy? Most believers understand that great joy awaits us in the presence of the Lord once we have departed this life. The book of Revelation gives ample testimony to the hope of joy which awaits believers in the hereafter (cf. Rev. 19.6-8; 21.2-4; 22.22-27). Then, in the unobstructed presence of the Lord, nothing shall be able to impede or dilute the joy believers know, since they will be with the Lord to know Him fully, as it were, face to face, without any intervening sin or sorrow.
But that joy, at least, a foretaste of it, is also available to us here and now. As we have seen, the ability to know joy depends on the depth, intimacy, and constancy of our relationship with God, and the diligence with which we work at growing in the Lord and His salvation (2 Pet. 3.18; Jn. 17.3; Phil. 2.12. Various means are available – some of them quite surprising – to bring us into the experience of the joy of the Gospel. The various trials we must endure should signal us to turn to the Lord with rejoicing, rather than to sink into a mood of defeat or despair (Jn. 16.21, 22; Rom. 5.1, 2; Jms 1.2). We may lay hold of our joy by engaging in prayer (Jn. 16.23, 24); reading and meditating in the Word of God (1 Jn. 1.4; 1 Jn. 5.13; Jer. 15.16); sharing in fellowship with other believers (Phil. 4.1; 1 Thess. 2.19, 20); receiving good news and reports about the wellbeing of God’s people (3 Jn. 4); nurturing love for the unseen Christ (1 Pet. 1.8); sharing in the sufferings of our Lord (1 Pet. 4.13; Acts 5.41); serving the Lord’s people well (Heb. 13.17; 2 Cor. 1.24); and participating in the unity of God’s people (Phil. 2.2).
Thus, believers should not be strangers to the joy of their salvation, the joy of the Kingdom of God. God is always ready to meet us with joy, and He has provided ample means whereby we may engage Him for the joy that is to be known in His presence. Only our slothfulness, distractedness, or neglect of His salvation can keep us from living in joy now, in anticipation of the fullness of joy yet to come.
When we experience it, joy should come to expression in a variety of ways. That is, joy is not an affection merely to be experienced. In order for joy to have its full effect, it must be expressed.
Once again, the Scriptures provide numerous suggestions to guide us in expressing the joy we have in the Kingdom of God. We may shout for joy, like a home-town partisan whose favorite player has just scored the winning basket (Ps. 66.1). Singing songs of joy is also commended (Ps. 92.4). We may express our joy by giving to others in the midst of our adversity (2 Cor. 8.1, 2); sharing in the sowing and harvest of the seed of the Kingdom (Ps. 126.5); doing justice (Prov. 21.15); and by increasing in our experience of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13.44).
The joy that fills our souls must come to expression as joy lived, through all the various manifestations we have seen. If we fail to bring our joy to expression we will short-circuit its full effect. Further, by stifling the expression of joy we do not bear witness as we should to the reality of the Kingdom and its impact on our lives. Manifesting our joy is what makes our salvation visible to the watching world and signals them concerning the reality of the hope in which we live (1 Pet. 3.15).
The Gospel of the Kingdom brings joy to those who know it. This joy enables them to rise above their circumstances, filling them with delight, assurance, and an overall sense of wellbeing as they enter into the presence of the Lord, worship and give, serve and bear witness, work for justice and righteousness, and all this in spite of how unfavorable or oppressive may be their situation in life. This is true joy, lodged in the unseen realm, which comes to visible manifestation as the followers of Christ, embracing the Gospel of the Kingdom, know the joy of God and of His Spirit increasingly in every aspect of their lives.
T. M. Moore