Divine joy is at the heart of Jesus’ life. Luke 2:10 reports that he entered the world on a note of great jubilation; Luke 19:37 describes the people’s joy when he entered Jerusalem; and John 15:11 shows him bequeathing his joy to the disciples as he prepares to leave the world.
If you read the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel you will see that they are set against a backdrop of intense rejoicing. Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, shepherds and the angels are all recorded as rejoicing at Jesus’ birth.
Luke uses this general air of rejoicing to prepare the way for Jesus’ announcement in Luke 4:18-19. Many scholars are convinced that Jesus’ ‘mission statement’ was a proclamation of a new year of Jubilee. In Luke 4:19, Jesus states that he has been anointed with the Spirit to announce ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’. This is ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’, the year which God has graciously appointed to show his salvation.
The year of Jubilee
This does seem to point to ‘the year of jubilee’ which was established in Leviticus 25. This was a year of liberation, which was held every fifty years, when fields were left fallow, debts were forgiven, slaves set free, and all property was returned to its original owner.
If this is right, it means that ‘the year of jubilee’ – like all the other ritual feasts, sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament – was a prophetic symbol or foreshadowing of the reality of Jesus’ saving mission. As wonderful as the year of jubilee was, it was only a pointer to the ultimate jubilee which was announced and fulfilled by Jesus. The year of jubilee was a time of endless jubilation which celebrated the generous, gracious provision of God. Leviticus 25:21 shows that he could be trusted to provide what was needed, and the year-long rejoicing was founded on this freedom from worry and care.
If Jesus was declaring that he had been anointed to usher in the ultimate year of jubilee, it means that the age of salvation was meant to be enjoyed with unceasing rejoicing which is based on God’s gracious provision.
It should be obvious that jubilation, great rejoicing, is the only appropriate response when the poor and the hurting hear the Good News, when the captives are released, when the blind receive their sight, and when the oppressed are liberated.
Of course, there are enormous social implications in the concept of a perpetual year of jubilee, for we cannot simply ‘spiritualise’ the regular restructuring of social arrangements to bring about greater equality. Jesus’ salvation has brought about a degree of forgiveness, healing, deliverance and equality which was unimaginable in the Old Testament jubilees. His salvation, however, has not abolished the social dimensions of the Old Testament jubilees; instead, it has fulfilled and completed them, and has raised them to a much higher level.
No matter how hard it is for us to understand and work through the ‘world’ dimensions of salvation, we must never forget that Jesus was inaugurating perpetual jubilation. According to Jesus, the age of salvation, the age of the Spirit, the age of the Church, is meant to be an age of great rejoicing.
The jubilation which is at the centre of God’s being is meant to fill his people. The joy that God enjoyed within himself is meant to be our joy in him. The joy that he expressed at the sight of his original creation is meant to be our joy in each other and all creation. The joy that he articulated at the sight of his Son at his baptism and transfiguration is meant to be our joy in his Son and his glory, and so on.
We have seen that our response to God should be determined by his revelation to us – that we give because he gives, serve because he serves, sacrifice because he has sacrificed, and so on. In the same way, our response to his revelation of his joy and jubilation should be to live in the perpetual jubilee of the Spirit with great rejoicing.
Joy in the Bible
In the Scriptures joy is always a quality rather than merely an emotion. It is based in God, is derived from him, is a defining characteristic of his people, and is a foretaste of the joy of being with God forever in the kingdom of heaven. We see this, for example, in Psalm 16:11, “You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
The Hebrew Bible links ‘joy’ and ‘rejoicing’ to celebrating the regular festivals and sacrifices in the Jewish calendar. Psalm 43:4 emphases that rejoicing is a matter of personal response and not just following a religious schedule: “Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy; And on the harp I will praise You, O God, my God”. Joy is a particular theme of the prophet Isaiah. He reveals that joy is associated with the fullness of God’s salvation and will be completed and fulfilled in the future (Isaiah 49:13 & 61:10-11).
The most usual words for ‘joy’ and ‘to rejoice’ in the New Testament refer to ‘intense joy’ and are closely related to charis – which is the Greek word for ‘grace’. Reading the book of Acts we see that this intense joy characterises the life of the early church: for example, it accompanies the gift of the Spirit, the miracles performed in the name of Christ, the conversion of the Gentiles, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Intense joy based in grace is so basic to the New Testament that it is easy to overlook the considerable variety of grounds and occasions for rejoicing which it describes. When we are alert to the presence of intense joy and great rejoicing in the New Testament, we start to notice a spirit of joyous festivity which is not always evident in many sections of the Church today.
But we will not enjoy a truly biblical life if our devoted service and our good doctrine are not leavened with times of intense celebration in the joy of the Lord.
The sacrifice of praise Nehemiah 8:10 is probably the best known verse about joy, and it shows that God’s joy in us makes us strong. People cannot persevere with many things without joy. We can start almost anything with an act of our personal will, but we will not continue through difficulties and adversity without the experience or prospect of real joy. “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10
We can often refer to ‘gospel obedience’ and contrast it with the obedience that God demanded under the Old Covenant. Without a spirit of joy, however, gospel obedience can become a lifeless device which is little different to the legal obedience of the Jewish Pharisees. Our words and actions should be characterised by intense joy and great thanksgiving because our words and actions should be a response to God’s gracious initiative. We speak and do only what we hear him say, and because our words and deeds come from the utterly self-consistent God, they come wrapped in his personal joy.
The way to joy
Although we can say that we are called to obey God with joy because of his grace, we can also say that joy comes by grace through obedience – that joy results from obedience.
Joy comes by grace through obedience to God
This is why the New Testament calls for the costly sacrifice of praise. We do not obtain joy easily by singing certain songs in a particular way; we obtain it through sacrifice, through gospel obedience. In the ‘beatitudes’ (Matthew 5:3-12) Jesus describes a spiritual progression which climaxes in rejoicing and great gladness.
Most older translations of the Bible render makarios as ‘blessed’ to stress that the quality comes from God. Many modern translations, however, render makarios as ‘happy’ because it suggests the idea of a ‘large smile’. We need to grasp both these thoughts, for Jesus is saying that people will have God-given joyful smiles – and a matching inner heart attitude – when they live God’s way. Jesus is calling for a state of joyous contentment in the beatitudes, and is showing that this results from hearing God’s word and obeying it – from gospel obedience.
This means that we cannot know genuine joy until God has transformed the way we deal with the ordinary ‘Sermon on the Mount’ type events of life. If Matthew 5:13-7:29 is a series of examples of the beatitudes in action, it is also a description of a joy-producing life. In public church worship today, some leaders seem almost to try to ‘pump up’ people with joy when nothing much has changed in their everyday lives – when they have not allowed God to break through into the routine of their daily lives. But godly celebration which is ‘in spirit and truth’ can spring only from lives which have been transformed by God and are being renewed by his Holy Spirit.
We will not be able to rejoice ‘in spirit and in truth’ until we have learned to be anxious for nothing. And we will not have a carefree indifference to things until we have learnt to trust God completely.
In the Old Testament, it simply was not possible for anyone to celebrate the jubilee unless they deeply trusted God’s ability and will to provide enough for their needs. So too in the age of the perpetual jubilee of the spirit, we will not be able to rejoice continuously in the Lord unless we rely entirely on God to provide what we need.
Too many believers think that they will have joy only by praying and singing. But these are expressions of joy rather than the exclusive way to joy. If we trust God completely, and fill our lives with the simple and lovely things of God’s creation, we will know joy. The promise is absolute. If we trust God completely, and fill our lives with the simple and lovely things of God’s creation, we will know joy. Followers of Christ should be the most free, the most alive,the most interesting, and the most stimulating of men and women This is why praise is a sacrifice, and why worship is service. Our will is deeply involved in gospel obedience, in trusting God completely, and in setting our minds on noble, lovely things. It is a consciously chosen way of thinking and doing – but it is not a way of self-effort. When we respond to the Father’s gracious initiative with faith, his healing reaches into the inner recesses of our lives to develop our faith and strengthen our trust – joy in-and-from the Lord is the inevitable result.
Expressions of rejoicing
Jesus rejoiced so fully in life that the religious leaders of his day accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard. Sadly, there have always been people in the Church who are more concerned with what they call ‘reverence’ than with what the Bible calls rejoicing. The ‘careless’ followers of Christ should be the most free, the most alive, the most interesting, and the most stimulating of men and women. Rejoicing adds festivity to our serving to make us truly complete people who really are living in the image of our rejoicing, foot-washing God. The Old Testament people of God praised him with music and hymns, with shouts and dancing, with choirs and prophetic songs, with festivals and celebrations, with giving and hospitality, in the temple and the family home.
We have much to learn from the rich variety of their praise. But we must recognise that these are examples of rejoicing rather than biblically required forms. We need to learn, like Peter in Acts 10, that nothing which comes from the gracious hand of God is unclean; and we need to realise that we are free to celebrate the grace and goodness of God with every type of art and handiwork, with every aspect of our being, and in ways which are particularly relevant to our own age and culture.
The joy of the Lord is our strength, and celebratory events seem to provide us with a boost which enables us to persevere through the more mundane periods of the year. This is God’s pattern of life, for he has created a world full of seasons, with times of warmth and cold, dormancy and growth, blossom and harvest, night and day, and so on.
Rejoicing in the Lord gives us the strength to serve others, it provides us with the inspiration to worship him in the ordinary detail of our lives, and it equips us with the joy to give generously to the needy and to God’s work.
Rejoicing in the Lord gives us the strength to serve others and equips us for God’s work When we start to fill our lives with godly service, godly giving and godly rejoicing, we will be people who are beginning to be the worshippers whom the Father is seeking – we will be worshipping him in spirit and truth.