Rev. Smit is pastor of the Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2007, p. 57.
Significantly, joy, one of the nine aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, is near the beginning of the list in Galatians 5:22, right beside love. Joy for the believer is not unimportant. The new life of Christ in us is one not of misery, but of spiritual joy. Even the wine of the Lord’s Supper signifies that the life that Christ works in us is not dismal and dark, but full of real, heavenly joy and gladness in Him and with our fellow saints.
That joy is vital to the life of the believer is evident from Scripture. Since the Psalms frequently use the word “joy” and some of its synonyms, such as blessedness, happiness, and pleasantness, the Psalms teach that the believer’s joy is a vital part of his life. Jesus Himself speaks of the preeminent place of joy in our salvation. He said in John 15:11, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” The apostle John echoes the same esteem of the believer’s joy in I John 1:4: “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full!”
Wherefore, it is not at all strange that the apostle Paul, in Philippians 4:4, exhorts the Philippians unto joy: “Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say, Rejoice!” We are exhorted by the Lord unto the production of spiritual joy.
What may seem strange to us, however, is the timing of this exhortation. The Philippians were in the throes of persecution. The church was despised by the world. She was in the crosshairs of the Devil’s rapid-fire cannon of temptations. It would seem that at that particular time in the life of the congregation, “rejoice” would hardly be the most appropriate admonition to give the people of God. This exhortation, in its timing, is very similar to that of Jesus when He spoke to the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-16). She was on her way to the town cemetery, where she planned to bury her only son. And Jesus said to her in her unimaginable grief, “Weep not!” (Luke 7:13). Is it appropriate that a child of God in such lowly circumstances be exhorted to produce the fruit of joy?
Such commands from the Lord are not out of place in our difficult times. We need to be called by Christ to rejoice in Him. We need our heads lifted up unto the Lord and our hearts encouraged in the joy of our Lord. We need the Spirit of Christ to work in us this wonder- fruit of joy throughout our life, even in our troubles and afflictions.
According to the exhortation in Philippians 4:4, true joy centers in the Lord. There can be no true joy apart from the Lord. The world believes that there is true joy only apart from Christ. The world believes that joy and gladness can be found in the worship of false gods and in the wicked pursuits of covetousness, gambling, fornication, reveling, drunkenness, and the like. The world believes that real joy can be produced in a life of self-centeredness without God, Christ, and the Word of God. However, the only true joy there is for the elect, regenerated, and sanctified child of God is the joy of Christ and His Spirit.
One can find, in creation, examples that illustrate that the world’s philosophy about joy and happiness is foolishness. For example, God ordained that a fish enjoys its life and creaturely happiness within the God-ordained place of its lake. Within the boundaries of the lakeshore, the fish thrives. As soon as the fish attempts to escape its God-ordained boundaries and tries to live on land, it will die. Such a fish will learn by its untimely death that there is no life and happiness outside its boundaries.
Similarly, God originally put man in his proper place to serve God and to love God in holiness and righteousness. Within those God-ordained boundaries, Adam and Eve thrived in perfection and rejoiced in their place in Paradise with God. They had life and happiness in covenant friendship with God and with each other in their marriage.
However, when man sinned, he forsook the God-ordained boundaries. He thought in his foolishness that there was joy to be found on the other side of the God-ordained boundaries. Like a fish that tries to live on land, so man, living apart from God, found in the Fall only misery and death. Still today, wicked and unbelieving man will find only misery and death apart from Christ and His Word. Although the world persistently portrays a life of godlessness and unrighteousness as joyful, such a life of the hatred of God is only misery and death.
As the psalmist David explained in Psalm 32:3-4, we learn through our falls into sin that there is no joy apart from the Lord. There is no joy for those who hide their sin and refuse to repent of it. There is no joy while walking in sin. No joy in a cover-up of our sin by a complicated web of lies and deceit. Instead of joy, there is for the unbelieving and wicked only many sorrows (Ps. 32:10).
The fruit of joy is found only “in the Lord.” True joy has its only source in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who Himself is the joy of the Father in heaven. Christ was joyful while He performed the will of His Father. Christ counted it a joy to redeem His people from sin by His own shed blood. Christ rejoices in glory at the right hand of the Father. There Christ’s desire is that we might share in His joy so that He works in us His life of joy.
That our joy is “in the Lord” includes the idea that our joy is experienced in fellowship and prayer with the Father in Him. It is not true that the extent of our joy is merely that we understand our privilege to do the Lord’s work here below, and then rejoice in that privilege and duty. “In the Lord” includes the idea that we count it all joy to belong to Christ spiritually and to know that He is our Friend-sovereign, who will never leave us nor forsake us.
Because our joy is only in Christ, we must not overlook the fact that true joy is a spiritual and heavenly joy. It is not temporal and fleeting. It is not the superficial joy of the charismatic movement. It is not mere emotional excitement. It is not a joy in which one feels good about himself. It is not even the joy of an ever-present, one-thousand megawatt smile.
Certainly, the true joy of the believer is not presumptuous, like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee in that notable parable prayed to God with joy in his heart before God. Nevertheless, his joy was not produced by the Spirit. It was a superficial, hollow joy, which was rooted in his own works and supposed righteousness and was without a real foundation.
In fact, Jesus, in Matthew 5:21-23, spoke of those who in the judgment will say, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” Those who rejoice in their own works base their joy in themselves and their own righteousness. What a rude awakening such self-boasters will have when, as Jesus explained, they will be told by the Judge in their judgment: “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity!” Such shall be cast into everlasting sorrow and misery. To those who in pride and unbelief trust in their own works and righteousness, there is only sorrow.
Moreover, the true joy of the believer is not based upon earthly things. It is not based upon the quantity and the quality of our wealth and health. We may be tempted to think that if we receive much earthly prosperity and sound health, then we may be joyful in the Lord; but, when providentially we are given very little wealth and ill health, then there is no reason for joy. However, that is not the idea of the true, spiritual joy of the Spirit of Christ. The joy of the Spirit is neither selfish, covetous, nor carnal; but, it is centered in the Lord, is full of contentment, and delights to do the will of the Father.
Finally, consider that true joy is not the same thing as common earthly joys that we experience. There are the earthly joys of our close, earthly relationships. There are the earthly joys of newlyweds, of marriage, of family, of children, and of grandchildren, which are even more enjoyable when we experience such things with those of like precious faith. But can those joys, which are good gifts of God and must be received with thanksgiving, be the true, lasting, spiritual joy of the believer, when they will pass away?
The true joy, which is the wonder-fruit of the Spirit, is everlasting and victorious. It is based upon the righteousness that Christ earned for us and all His elect for whom and whom alone He died and made a complete atonement. Our true gladness flows out of a true and living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is filled with the substantial knowledge of the doctrines of the Reformed faith. The joy of the believer is the knowledge and conviction of the truth of the triune God and His only begotten Son, our Lord and Savior.
Additionally, that joy is the assurance of God’s goodness and love towards us for the sake of Christ. That assurance includes the basic comfort that we belong unto Him in body and soul because of the complete atonement by His shed blood. Because of that work of Christ, the Father delights in us, and we possess in Christ the life and experience of delight in Him. That is the joy of fellowship with our Bridegroom, Christ, reflected in the marital joy of a newlywed husband and wife, made one in the Lord. That true joy, which is rooted in Christ, transcends the vanity of this life and looks heavenward for the complete joy of our Lord.
Let us pray earnestly that the Lord by His Spirit work in us now that real, lasting joy of which we confess and sing in the last part of a familiar doxology:
“Thus may we abide in union with each other and the Lord:
and possess in sweet communion joys which earth cannot afford.”