“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”
(1 Thess. 5:16-18).
In the eyes of many, reformed people are rather sombre; they’re considered to be sober and too serious. The perception is that they have strict rules, deny themselves much and always have something or another to remark about others. Moreover, they’re not considered to be up with the times.
Certainly not a joyful image.
How do we judge ourselves in this? Do we experience joy? Do we feel real joy because of our faith? Is it a part of our daily life of faith? Or does the joy of faith remain a theoretical matter: yes, we must rejoice, but notice little of it in ourselves?
How do we apply this well-known text: “Rejoice always” (Phil. 4:4 & 1 Thess. 5:16)? Do we push it aside as ‘idealism’—useful when addressing someone who is in the pits of despair but not something attainable in everyday life? Yet the call to “rejoice always” is not unrealistic idealism. If you search the Scriptures you will find many more texts that speak of the joy of faith. In fact, it seems as if the Bible is full of them!
To be sure, speaking about the joy of faith can be vague and fuzzy. This happens, for example, with some evangelical groups with their emphasis on personal experience. It’s often accompanied by clapping and a superficial forced joyfulness and that outward expression then becomes the test of whether your faith is real.
This article will focus on how Scripture speaks about the joy of faith: how we obtain this joy, what it involves, what place and role it has in our life of faith and how we can give expression to that joy in our life.
What is joy in the Lord?
Joy is an inner experience or state of mind. It is more than feeling satisfied; it gives expression to a deep appreciation for something or someone.
Is it just an emotion?
No, never, because there must always be a reason for this joy, a clear foundation that you can identify. That awareness enables you to give expression to that inner joy.
Admittedly, that expression will vary depending on what type of person you are. Some people are more inclined to hide their feelings than others; hence not everyone will be able to see your joy even though inwardly you do experience it.
What does Scripture teach us about the joy of faith?
First, such joy is a definite and essential part of our faith! Joy is like love: without it there is no true faith. Paul writes to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say: rejoice!” And he adds the reason, the source, the purpose and the circumstances of this joy.
The reason for this joy is something Paul’s readers, and hence we too, always have. Not just now and then, but continually; because it is, as it says, joy in the Lord. That is, if you are joined to the Lord through faith, then you continually have reason for joy. If you truly love Him, that love will translate into a joyful disposition. Your joy is not just based on sound understanding but also involves your feelings and will lead to an ongoing positive mood and happiness. It has everything to do with the riches of the faith and the overwhelming riches of God’s grace (Eph. 2:7). It is linked in true love to God, the God who has made Himself known to us in His Word and through His Son with His wonderful qualities and deeds and especially His merciful love.
There is therefore a deep and continual reason for joy, and this reason is real and at the same time wonderful: it is the knowledge that I am allowed to be God’s child! I am saved from the deepest misery imaginable! I am allowed to possess the wonderful and certain promises of the covenant, the inheritance of glorious eternal life! I’m allowed to be a living member of His church, to live with and for Him all the days of my earthly existence!
Scriptures have many passages that show how our fellowship with the Lord is such reason for joy in Him. Back in the OT, God’s people were shown in Leviticus how they should express this joy through their peace (or thank) offerings. These peace offerings were a delight for the offeror, and for the office bearers and the families of the offeror, together with all those in need in the congregation of the LORD and among the Levites. They were a token of the joy in the LORD of the communion of saints (Lev. 3:7-11).
In Deuteronomy 12, Moses instructed the people of Israel to be joyful in the LORD and to be reminded of this when they enter the Promised Land:
And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. (Deut. 12:12)
And there are more places where we read of the encouragement to rejoice for all the blessings the LORD God has given to the Israelites in their families (Deut. 14:26, 16:11, 14, 27:7). They foreshadowed the joy we may have in Christ.
The book of Psalms and the New Testament
You may have noticed that many Psalms emphasise the songs of the covenant and the joy in the LORD. (So do the prophets such as Isaiah and Zechariah.) Here are just a few of the many—categorized by the various grounds provided for this joy.
(1) The church and her members have eternal life in covenant communion with God, with His peace and His abundant blessings for our daily sustenance.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy, at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:9-11).
Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holy name (Psalm 97:11, 12).
(2) God’s great deeds of redemption and deliverance, of protection and comfort:
For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous; with favour You will surround him as with a shield (Ps 5:12).
But I am poor and needy; yet the LORD thinks upon me, You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God (Ps 40:17).
(3) God’s redemption and forgiveness of sins:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness (Psalm 51:10, 14).
Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the LORD, mercy shall surround him. Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Psalm 32:10, 11)
(4) To be able to live according to God’s commandments:
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether (Ps 19:9).
I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word (Psalm 119:14-16).
(5) God maintaining the just and righteous judgement over all His enemies.
Walk about Zion, and go all around her. Count her towers (Ps 48:12).
Do not slay them, lest my people forget; scatter them by Your power, and bring them down, O Lord our shield (Ps 59:11).
Joy in the Lord in connection with God’s judgement over all His enemies is to be seen in the light of justice and the coming of God’s Kingdom (Luke 18:7; Revelation 6:10, 16:6 and 7).
(6) The expectation of the LORD, the hope in Him in difficulty and trials, in the perseverance of faith.
For our heart shall rejoice in Him, because we have trusted in His holy name (Ps 33:21).
(7) The assurance of the inheritance of eternal life.
But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. Wait on the LORD, and Keep His way, and He shall exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you shall see it (Ps 37:11,34).
That I may see the benefit of Your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of Your nation. That I may glory with Your inheritance (Ps 106:5).
In the New Testament there are many places where the call to have joy in the Lord because of the faith and endurance in the faith is accented. Also emphasised is the joy of faith which may be shared in the communion of His people. We read of this for example in the letter to the Philippians and in the second letter to the Corinthians. In this way we see that when God comes to us with His salvation we are urged to respond to His call: Rejoice in the Lord at all times!
How do we get this joy in the LORD?
The source of this joy lies in God. God Himself not only gives reason for this joy; He also gives the joy. Like love and peace, joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit who works it in us through faith. Joy is therefore one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). And therefore, here again: the thankful response which the Lord requires of us He also gives us. For God had actually determined this beforehand. It was His intent, part of His divine plan, that we as His sons would delight to do His will and, in this way, glorify Him. (Eph. 1:5, 6, 12, 14). That is why He works it in us by His Holy Spirit.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul gives special attention to this rejoicing: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. That means: This is what God want to see us do; this is His good pleasure.
This faith, rejoicing and love to God can only be fed in a trusting fellowship with the Lord. Therefore study of God’s Word and prayer for the gift and power of the Holy Spirit will give us that trusting fellowship with its joy. But when our covenant relationship with the LORD is neglected and superficial, then also the joy and thankfulness will disappear in our lives. Joy is a gift and a commitment. That’s why the Lord urges us: “Rejoice in the Lord always … in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:4-6).
What do we do with our Joy?
Now about the purpose of our joy as ‘joy in the Lord’: joy is not merely an inner mood that we don’t do anything with, apart from having a positive attitude to life. Like our love for the Lord it is more than something we observe and feel good about. The joy we receive we are to direct back to the Lord! For our joy has everything to do with our thankfulness. Thankfulness and joy in the Lord go hand-in-hand:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
Our joy will give expression to our thankfulness: we are jubilant in Him, we glory in His name, we shout joyfully to Him, we glorify Him, we love and praise His name. He who makes us happy is our joy. And, of course, we want to tell Him so, whether it be enthusiastically or more reservedly. The Bible is full of reasons, incentives, to glorify and praise Him and thus to respond to the purpose of our whole life as creature and child of God. That is pleasing to the Lord and in this way He again delights in His creation, the works of his hands.
That may stimulate us to give expression to our joy in singing songs of praise to our God, not just in church but also at home.
Perhaps you are inclined to say: surely in this life you can’t always be in a joyful mood. Doesn’t the Bible also speak about sadness and moments of heavy burdens and afflictions? Let’s consider what the Lord says.
When are we joyful in the Lord?
The Lord himself says, we should always be joyful—in all circumstances. The Lord wants to ensure that this can be reality by granting His Spirit in response to our prayers in all our circumstances (Acts 16:25; 1 Thess. 5:16-18), even when we must endure great difficulties and trials. For then the Lord grants us, in response to our request, His Spirit to work faith and perseverance in our hearts. Thereby He again radiates His love (Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2,3; 1 Pet. 1:7,8; 2:19; 4:13; 5:10) and thereby our eyes become more focussed on our Saviour, as Author and Perfector of our faith, who throughout His sufferings kept in mind “the joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 12:2).
That is also allowed to be our comfort, as church, particularly in days of sadness through personal grief or because of our sufferings as church of Jesus Christ.
In addition, the Lord has directed us to remember His great deeds in order to stir up our joy in Him. He did that already in the Old Testament through His great deeds in saving His people from Egypt and from exile, but also through other acts of salvation, such as Jehoshaphat’s victory over the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron. 20:27) and the saving of the Jews in the time of Mordecai (Esther 8:16; 9:17-22).
Think also of the feast days God instituted—the Sabbath, the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23) and the Year of Jubilee (Lev.25). Again and again there was reason to express great joy in the Lord and to honour Him uprightly, such as when the ark was brought up to Jerusalem (1 Chron. 16:27), in the freewill offerings for the temple (1 Chron. 29:9,17,22) and at the dedication of the temple of Solomon when the Lord came to dwell in the midst of his people (2 Chron. 6:41). Very great joy was expressed at the coming into the world of our Lord Jesus Christ (Lk. 2:10) and subsequently for all the great deeds in the history of our salvation which the church may continue to remember.
In the same way every Sunday, wherein we meet the Lord in His church, is fully a joyful event (Ps. 118:24; Heb. 12:23).
Reformation gives reason for joy
Moreover, particularly through reformations of the church and covenant renewals the Lord each time again showed his love and faithfulness. Hence each time again there was reason for joy in Him to blossom. It’s something we read of in several passages of the Scripture. For example:
- when Jehoiada made a covenant between himself, the people, and the king, that they should be the Lord’s people (2 Chron. 23;18);
- when Joash arranged collections for the repair of the temple (2 Chron. 24: 10,27,36);
- at Hezekiah’s cleansing of the temple (2 Chron. 29:36);
- at Hezekiah’s celebration of the Passover (2 Chron. 30: 21-26);
- at the dedication of the temple after the exile and at the Passover (Ezra 6: 16,22);
- when Ezra read of the Law and when the Feast of Tabernacles was again celebrated (Neh. 8: 11,13);
- at the dedication of Jerusalem’s wall (Neh. 12:43).
For us there may be extra reason to rejoice in the Lord, for He has continued to care for His church despite difficulties and schisms. Therefore we need not be despondent or lose heart. Certainly not now that, since Pentecost, we have received the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who leads us in the truth and in this way makes known to us the true reason for our joy and wants to develop that further in us. Through Him every day – also those days in which there is sadness – we may with uplifted head expect our Saviour from heaven!
In this way the Lord in His great mercy gives us here already the beginning of eternal joy which will soon, at the marriage feast of the Lamb, be perfected:
“Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready” (Rev. 19: 7).
(This article appeared in De Bazuin 29th June 2011 and was translated and slightly abridged by J Numan.)