That most of us do not think of joy as a primary characteristic of the Church probably indicates both how little we regard it and how far we have moved from the spirit of the early Church. For if anything characterizes the early Church it is that it was a joyous assembly.
When the Jerusalem Church sent a letter to the churches of Antioch, Syria and Cilicia after the first Church council, they began their announcement of the momentous decision regarding Gentile liberty from law by the word chairein – “Joy be with you” (Acts 15:23). James begins his letter in the same manner – “Joy be with you” (James 1:2). In Paul there are many such greetings. Thus, when in a letter literally flowing over with joy, the Apostle wishes to give final admonitions to his friends, the Philippians, he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say. Rejoice” (4:4).
But is the Church today joyful? Are Christians?
No doubt we think of joy as something that should characterize the Church ideally and will doubtlessly characterize it in that day when we are gathered together around the throne of grace to sing God’s glory. But here? Here it is often the case that there are sour looks, griping, long faces and other manifestations of a fundamental inner misery.
We should be joyful, but often we are not. We are depressed. Circumstances get us down. Instead of the victory we should experience, we know defeat and discouragement.
Since none of us wants to remain gloomy, let us see what we can find as a remedy.
The first remedy for a lack of joy is on the surface of the text. Jesus says quite clearly, “These things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy” (John 17:13). This means that in one sense the basis for joy is sound doctrine. Earlier in these final discourses Jesus declared, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:10, 11). Joy is to be found in a knowledge of God’s character and commandments, and these are to be learned through his Word. When we are settled in our knowledge of God, his will and ways, we can trust him peacefully and joyfully whatever the circumstances.
Does someone say, “Oh, but that is easy for you to say, but you don’t know my circumstances. I am thirty-two years old and unmarried. My parents are dead, and I am so lonely. I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to go on this way for thirty or forty more years…” Another says, “But I’m an invalid. I can’t get about. My circumstances are so hard…” If you are speaking this way, you are indicating your practical ignorance of the sovereignty of God and are confessing that your thoughts are not really settled in him. Instead of this, recognize that he has planned those circumstances and look for his purposes in them.
Let me say something about circumstances, which we often think are so bad. Circumstances refer to things that are without. The word itself is based on two Latin words: circum, which means“around” (as in the word “circumference”), and stare, which means “to stand.” So circumstances are the things that are standing around us. They are external. But where is the Lord in this picture? Is he without? No, by contrast he is within. It is a case of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1 :27). So why worry about what is without, if Christ is within? To know that he is within and that he is directing us moment by moment, day by day, is the secret of that super-natural joy which is our rightful birthmark as God’s children.
The second remedy for a lack of joy in the believer’s life is fellowship, and that in two dimensions. There is a vertical fellowship: fellowship with God. And there is a horizontalfellowship: fellowship with one another. Jesus is the pattern for us in both cases.
One thing we are going to notice in these six marks of the Church is that Jesus is the pattern for each one. And that is certainly the case here. For Jesus was joyful, even though we call him (rightly, but perhaps one-sidedly) “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” We know this from our text, because he speaks here, not just of “joy,” but of “my joy.” It is this that he holds out to us. What is his joy? It is the joy of moment by moment contact and fellowship with the Father. This is what sustains him in this prayer. It is what sustained him on the cross.
It will sustain us as well, if we will only enter into the reality of that fellowship. Do not say, “But that is for Jesus; he was the Son of God, and I am just I.” Are we not also sons of God? Is it not Jesus himself who has taught this to us? He taught that we could be born into God’s family (John 3:3, 7). He taught that God could become our Father (John 20:17). Therefore, we can enter into the joy of Christ even as he entered into it – by constant fellowship with the Father.
Moreover, we can enjoy it on the horizontal level also. In fact, we must enjoy it on the horizontal level, for fellowship with the Father and with one another always go together. So if you are not joyful, it may be that you have cut yourself off from other Christians, perhaps even with the thought of establishing your own private fellowship with God. It does not work that way. You need other believers, and they need you. Without them your fellowship with God will be diminished and your joy will not be full.
There is one final part to God’s remedy for lack of joy. It is that we must live holy lives; for sin will keep us from God, and the fellowship with him that we need will be broken. In John 17 this thought is suggested by the sequence of the verses. For immediately after speaking of our need for joy, Jesus goes on to speak of our need for holiness, adding, “Sanctify them through thy truth” (v. 17). The same thing is suggested in Romans 14:17, where Paul says, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Many Christians do not have the joy that they ought rightly to have because they go their way, rather than God’s. They disobey his commandments. How much better to go God’s way in holiness, to rest in him, and thus allow him to “fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Rom. 15:13).