“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
When I was somewhat younger, I really had no idea what a Christadelphian Memorial Service looked like, because I stayed home with everyone except my father on Sunday afternoons (for it was an afternoon service). Indeed, with my father being recording brother, my mother did not get to memorial, except very occasionally, for perhaps decades. And it was not until I was about fourteen that I got to go to the solemn occasion: and there was no doubt what would happen if I made any noise to disturb the quiet. Although the hymns were sung quite well, the tempo was not exactly energetic, and without amplification in a large hall sometimes it was hard to hear what was going on — not that I paid much attention at the time.
So it is not surprising that later, when I came across all the numerous references to “joy” in both the Old and New Testaments, that I wondered where the “joy” was on those occasions. It was not until I went to university that I began to really appreciate the joy and enthusiasm that the Truth involves, which has to a large extent stayed with me ever since.
But as we deal with the travails of this life — illness, unemployment, the disputes within our own community, the political and national strife that fills the headlines — I sometimes wonder where the joy is. As George Carlin said, “Life is tough, and then you die.” So when we remember the death of our Lord Jesus, we also remember his resurrection. However, we should also remember to express the joy that this should engender. The coming of the Messiah, who delivers his people and brings salvation, is the basis for rejoicing in the New Testament. The response of joy, gladness, or happiness should not only be a deep inward feeling, but is to be expressed in celebration when God’s people gather together.
Joy and grace
There are many words for “joy” used in both the Old and New Testaments: but of the occurrences in the KJV New Testament, the Greek word chara is the most frequent. And indeed the Greek word for grace, charis, is derived from chairo (to rejoice), and is closely related to chara (joy). What is the connection between grace and joy? Do they not both speak of the involuntary surging of spirit which longs to give and wants to praise? The epistle which is most full of joy is that to the Philippians, which was written in bonds and imprisonment. We should all have experienced the sudden, unpremeditated thrill of finding God’s goodness turn the darkness of pain, loss, and despair into hopefulness and joy. The great witness to God and His Word has always been the deep, inner joy of lives yielded to Him in humble, loving service at work, at home, and in the ecclesia — in the homely devotion of ordinary life offered to Him, daily.
Do we lack joy?
“And the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the Lord. And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of musick, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy” (1Chron 15:15-16).
The life of discipleship should be a life of increasing joy — joy not only in growing in the faith (e.g., Phil 1:25), but also in helping others grow in the faith. The New Testament is replete with references to the joy of those involved in the mission of the Church and the edification of its members. Paul rejoiced when he saw the successful spread of the gospel (Phil 1:18) and on occasions when he had indication of spiritual growth among the members of the churches (e.g., Philemon 7; 1Thess 3:9; Rom 16:19; Col 2:5). When Paul discerned a positive response on the part of the Corinthians to his tearful visit and sorrowful letter, he told them of his great joy (2Cor 7:4, 7, 9, 13, 16). John likewise rejoiced in the obedience of his community (2John 4; 3John 3-4).
However, the New Testament is much less explicit than the Old about the manner in which joy is expressed. There is no doubt that joy was understood in terms of a deep inward experience, but this inner disposition quite likely found tangible expression in the Christian communities when they gathered. It would probably be safe to assume that the Old Testament concept of joyous celebration with jubilant singing and praise to God provided a model for the New Testament ecclesias. Paul does stress that joy is to be shared (Rom 12:12; 2Cor 7:13) and even employs a word (sugchaird) that emphasizes the shared nature of joy (1Cor 12:26; Phil 2:17-18).
So do we lack joy?
It is true that many of our services lack any obvious outward signs of joy, such as David established when he brought the Ark to Jerusalem. But it might well be that joy is there but it is undiscovered because it is unrecognized. That is to say, we might have a wrong idea of what we are looking for. It may be that we have confused cheerfulness with joy. Our services might be formal; our hymns dull; our methods perfunctory; and therefore we might think there is no joy. Perhaps we shy away from the exuberance that many of the churches around us exhibit, suspecting them of doing it out of habit, out of custom, not out of true Christian joy.
We do believe that people can have joy without shouting, dancing, or falling about. Let us not make a mistake here. There is nothing wrong with cheerfulness, happiness — at home or in the ecclesia. However, under the right conditions cheerfulness is excellent, but it is not the same as joy. Understand also that sometimes joy is expressed in songs and dance and radiant faces. But if these are absent we must not conclude that joy has gone. Joy may be expressed in the ordinary and the orthodox. David danced and so did Habakkuk; Mary sang a great song; the Emmaus disciples went back at the double; and Hannah went home with a lilt in her step.
But perhaps our main mistake is equating joy with a great moment of ecstasy which comes in as a result of an unexpected (or expected) occasion, lasts for a brief period, and then is gone. We think of those celebrants who jumped for joy at the Olympics: we think of the joy we experienced at marriage, or the birth of a child. “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:21).
The point we are stressing is that true Christian joy does not depend on a certain set of circumstances. As Paul says: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Gal 5:22). One cannot tell whether a certain ecclesia lacks joy by simply measuring the volume of their singing, or the width of their smiles on a Sunday morning. But we can surely tell whether we have true joy by looking at it as part of the fruit of the spirit, the fruit of our discipleship of Christ. Fruit is not a flash-in-the-pan thing. It is permanent, solid, substantial. The growth is real but often imperceptible. Slowness is not failure. It is there on dull days as well as sunshine days. If joy sings, it never tires. There is a song for June and a song for January. The word for joy is a common word. It is not a red-letter word, flaming with passion. It means something steady, quiet, divinely wonderful, like fruit. It means gladness, common delight — a sense of quiet assurance. I remember the joy I felt when I realized that I indeed had faith, and when I was baptized.
But I also remember those times when I have heard an exhortation that re-kindled that sort of joy. Of the excitement when I realize I truly understand what a passage means, one that I have been struggling with. Of the joy I have experienced in convincing others of the Truth.
And let us not forget that life might be tough, but it was tougher for the early disciples, and they showed forth true joy as they spread the Gospel. As Paul says, “As sorrowful but always rejoicing” (2Cor 6:10). Think of Acts 16. Two men are in prison. Their backs are torn and lacerated. They are chained in the lowest and darkest dungeon, cramped in the stocks — and they are singing. We can be sure they are exercising their discipleship on the highest level. They are not singing just to keep their spirits up; they are singing for joy. The song was the outcome of their gladness. It was the song of the resurrection. The stocks hurt them; their bloody backs pained them, but for some reason they were impelled to offer praise to God. Somehow the joy in their hearts had to find expression in the song, and no pain could muzzle it. The other prisoners heard it because no bars could fetter it.
That was true joy: the joy that caused Jesus to endure the cross: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
So do we have joy? We have to answer for ourselves, but we must remember if we lack joy, we truly lack the fruit of the spirit of Christ.