… our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction … And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).

Joy! Would you say you have it? Given the present circumstances—perhaps you’ve been laid off, perhaps you’re somewhat concerned where this whole pandemic thing could go, perhaps you don’t feel like you’re up to the task of overseeing the kids’ school work, perhaps you’re isolated at home—given these present circumstances, would you say that you have joy?

Note well, I didn’t ask whether you are happy; I’m asking about joy. Those are two very different things. Happiness is very much determined by your circumstances. In that sense no one is really happy given what we are all working through right now. Biblical joy, though, is not determined by circumstances. It is instead something that sustains us through all our circumstances!

We often think we want happiness. Especially in challenging circumstances we often pull out all stops to try and stay happy. But what we really need, indeed what we really want more than happiness is joy, biblical joy!

The Thessalonian Christians had it! They had it, despite living with “much affliction”. Their life was difficult; their circumstances were nothing to be happy about. And yet, they were blessed with joy! Knowing how that is possible will help us in our present circumstances.

It’s possible, praise God, because verse 5 says, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. That powerful, Holy Spirit-driven gospel did something to them and in them. Thus, verse 6, they became imitators of the apostles and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even though the Christians of Thessalonica were going through difficult circumstances they became imitators of the apostles in terms of how they lived out this gospel message. But here’s something: they also became imitators of the Lord Jesus Himself. And again, all of that in the context of suffering. Yes, in that context, says verse 6, they received the word “with the joy of the Holy Spirit”.

A difficult life. Challenging circumstances. Their new-found Christianity probably cost them their friends, maybe even their jobs. But yet, joy! How is that possible?

It’s a good question. Two things are wonderfully clear from these two verses. First, this biblical joy is connected very concretely to the Word of God, the gospel of our salvation in Christ. And second, it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit; it’s worked by the Holy Spirit!

So, to ask you even as I ask myself, do you have this joy? Perhaps that gets you thinking. Maybe that question even gets you worried. I am not sure I have it as much as I would like.

But then, brothers and sisters, we turn our attention away from ourselves and in faith go to the Word. This is a time, indeed it’s always a time, to marinate yourself deeply in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a time, indeed it’s always a time, to be constantly in prayer petitioning our heavenly Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit so that you, too, might know this joy.

And what a blessing it is to have this joy! Because, what is this joy? It’s the assurance of the soul, gifted by the Holy Spirit as He causes us to grasp in faith through the Word the wonder of what we have in Christ. To make it personal—and feel free to say this aloud to yourself—biblical joy is the faith that I hold deep in my soul, worked there by the Spirit, by which I know and believe with absolute certainty that I belong to my Saviour Jesus Christ as He is revealed to me in His Word. Do you hear echoes of Lord’s Day 1?

Then your and my circumstances can leave us squirming, uncomfortable, feeling out of sorts, perhaps even scared … but I’ve been gifted joy! Praise the Lord, I can know and believe that, in belonging to Him, my circumstances are under His perfect control. Joy, biblical joy worked in me by the Spirit, isn’t determined by my circumstances—the stress of overseeing the kids’ education, the fact that I’ve been laid off from work, the … and we can all fill in our own situation—biblical joy isn’t determined by my circumstances. No, and how glorious this is: biblical joy is what anchors me in all circumstances. Biblical joy doesn’t ebb and flow based on my circumstances in any given moment. No, it’s the one constant in all my circumstances.

Pray your Father in heaven to gift you with this joy through His Spirit’s work in you. And, and this is really important too: be in the Word. Meditate on it. Search the Scriptures to find out what sort of God you serve. And you’ll discover something: joy! Wonderful, biblical joy!