READ : John 15:11
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
John 15:11 rsv
The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about joy. In his prologue to the New Testament in 1523 the martyr-saint William Tyndale once called Christianity “good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.”
JOY IN CHRIST
Remember how the angels sang at Jesus’ birth? “Good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:11). Salvation through Christ brings what the apostle Peter called “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8, kjv). The disciples all knew what it was to be called, cleansed and forgiven by Jesus, to find gladness. Everywhere the gospel went, as we read about it in the book of Acts, joy seemed to erupt. Think of what it is to be weighed down with guilt and then experience forgiveness, to be wandering far away from God and be brought back home, to be chained by evils you can’t break free from and then find release! That’s what people find who discover Christ.
The famous missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones, was standing once in an Alaskan hotel room, looking in the mirror. “Stanley Jones,” he said to himself, “you’re a very happy man, aren’t you?” I replied, “Yes, I am.” “How did you get this way?” “I don’t know. It’s all a surprise to me, a growing surprise. I walked across a field one day and I stubbed my toe against the edge of a treasure chest, ran off and sold all I had, including myself and bought that field, and I’ve been hugging myself ever since that I had sense enough to do it.” Yes, he found “the treasure hidden in a field,” Jesus Christ and His salvation. C.S. Lewis entitled the story of his conversion to Christ, Surprised by Joy. Joy overtook him as an unexpected benediction, claimed him as a glad marvel. The God whom he had dreaded to meet became his highest happiness.
I can identify with that. I grew up with a distaste for things religious. I found church services tedious and boring. I tried to get jobs on Sunday mornings so that I wouldn’t have to attend. There seemed to me no zest, no excitement, no fun in the religion I found there. But one summer evening, under a street light, a friend of mine asked me what I thought it meant to be a Christian. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I groped for an answer. He listened, and then explained the gospel to me: who Jesus Christ is, God coming to us in a human life. He told me how Jesus had loved me so much as to give His life on my behalf, bearing my sins, and how He rose again from the dead and was alive. He told me how Jesus could come into my life, forgive me, give me a new heart, dwell with me always. That was all wonderfully new to me. It broke over me like a sunrise. I knew it was true, and true for me. I invited Jesus to enter my life. I committed myself to Him as my Savior and Lord and tasted a joy I had never before known. I went home and woke up my parents to tell them what had happened to me.
That’s probably one of the reasons I’m preaching to you now almost fifty years later. Because knowing Jesus Christ brought such joy to my life, I felt constrained to share it with as many people as I could. And I found that sharing it somehow made it richer for me. What I’m asking God for today is that you, hearing my voice, may experience something of that joy, that you may taste and see that the Lord is good. If you’ve never yet done that, I’m hoping that you will invite Jesus, the risen Savior, to come into your life, that you will commit yourself to Him.
I’m hoping that you’ll be like Christian in Bunyan’s great allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. As Christian on his journey, we read, came up to the cross, his burden loosed from his shoulders and fell off his back. It began to tumble and continued to do so until it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in and he saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome and said with a merry heart, “He has given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.” Christian gave three leaps for joy and went on singing, “Thus far did I come, laden with my sin, nor could aught ease the grief that I was in ’til I came hither. What a place is this! Must here be the beginning of my bliss. Must here the burden fall from off my back? Must here the strings that bound it to me crack? Blessed cross! Blessed sepulcher! Blessed rather be the man that there was put to shame for me!” Oh, I hope it will be so for you: joy, joy, joy in Christ, the joy of salvation.
But, friends, the joy that Christ brings into our lives is not meant to be a passing emotion, a high we experience once and then look back on wistfully for the rest of our lives. Listen to Jesus, speaking to His followers on the last night He was with them:
These things have I spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
They had already known His gracious call, His saving power. They had become His grateful followers. Now He had been speaking to them about His departure and also about His joy being in them and theirs being full. To understand what He means about “His joy,” we need to recall what He had just been saying. Listen. This is from the Gospel according to John, chapter 15, beginning at verse 1:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
It’s a phrase that has always arrested my attention. Jesus says, “My joy.” It’s His joy, He says, that will be in us. Isn’t that a fascinating revelation about Jesus’ life, about what went on inside Him? He was the man of sorrows. He was acquainted with grief. In Gethsemane, He was exceedingly sorrowful and sore amazed. A horror of great darkness came over His spirit. But all of that came because He stood in our place, because our sins were laid upon Him, because He identified Himself with our lot and died for us, bearing the stroke of judgment we deserve. The steady reality of Jesus’ life was not gloom but gladness. He was, by His own testimony, a man of joy.
What was the joy of Jesus? There was the gladness of knowing He was loved by the Father. He said it: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” That’s a big part of our happiness in life, isn’t it, knowing that we are loved, that someone cares about us, that our life has significance and value to another, that we are cherished, cared about? And the supreme joy is knowing that we’re loved by the Maker of all things, by our Father in heaven. That was Jesus’ joy.
His was also the joy, He said, of doing the Father’s will. “My meat [that is, my joy, my zest in life, what really keeps me going and fills my heart with gladness] is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work.” He speaks in this passage about bearing fruit. To bear fruit in His life for the Father’s glory, so that the Father would be praised, that was to Jesus the meaning of life.
Obeying the Father, glorifying the Father, meant fulfilling the mission on which He had been sent. There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents and returns to the Lord. That was Jesus’ joy, God’s joy, to seek and save the lost ones, to lay down His life for His friends. The joy Jesus is speaking about here as His life is drawing to its close is the joy of accomplishment, the joy of fulfillment, like the creative joy of the artist in having produced something beautiful. And that joy, that rich, full joy, Jesus says, will be in His followers.
What must they do to have it? Simply abide in Him. By faith they had been drawn into a relationship with Jesus. The Holy Spirit will soon come to make union with the risen Lord a wonderful reality in their experience. They’re simply to continue in that relationship, to keep looking toward Him, depending on Him and walking closely with Him. They are to let His words abide in them, meditating upon what He said, upon the promises He made, the commands He gave, internalizing, as it were, His message, His gospel. And as those abiding in Him, they are to bear fruit for the Father’s glory. They are to seek and save the lost. They are to love one another in the power He gives. In that kind of union with Him and that style of life, they will discover a joy that goes on and on and on. And that, Jesus says, “will make their joy full.”
JOY IN A LIFE OF LOVE
So, friends, joy is something that breaks over us when we come to Christ, when we behold His Cross, as Christian did, when we know Him as our Savior. It’s a joy we receive as heaven’s pure gift. But the joy that abides is bound up with the lives we go on to live, lives of communion with the risen Christ, lives of servant-love with our brothers and sisters, lives devoted to doing the Father’s will and seeking those whom He yearns to save.
The greatest enemy of our joy is selfishness. In our twisted, bent-out-of-shape way of looking at things, we tend to imagine that if we seek to please ourselves in everything, we’ll be truly happy. But when we pursue that course, it turns out to be a way of loneliness and misery. On the other hand, when in response to the grace of Christ we break free from those silken chains to begin to live for Him and for others, joy overtakes us. Someone has said that happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, to other people, it comes and softly sits on your shoulder.
I remember making that discovery early in my life as a husband and father. I’ll never forget it. We had four small children. One or more of them would often wake up in the middle of the night, crying and needing attention. Someone had to attend to them, and it was either my wife Helen or myself. It’s possible in those circumstances to feign deep sleep, to lie there motionless until finally your spouse gets up to do what needs to be done. I discovered that when I did that, I felt miserable. It was a self-serving act. My rest wasn’t disturbed. But I felt like a louse when my dear wife, who had been pouring out her energies for those children all day long, had to be the one to get up and minister to them in the middle of the night.
There were occasions, now and then, when I tried a different way. When I heard a cry, I got up, did for the children what needed to be done, held them in my arms, put them back down and then returned to bed. Somehow by God’s grace I’d been able to break through the pattern of my selfishness to do some little thing for the family that I love. When I went back to bed after that, I always felt joy. Somehow I wasn’t especially tired. I tasted a little bit of what Jesus meant when He said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
You know what I hope you realize today from this passage of Scripture and the things I’ve tried to say? I hope you go away with this: that the Lord of heaven and earth, the Father of mercies who sent His Son for you, wants your happiness. His desire for you is joy. If you will welcome Jesus as your Savior, abide in Him as your Lord, Redeemer and Friend, if you will in the strength He gives begin to love and serve and witness, reaching out beyond yourself, yours will be a happiness that knows no bounds. His joy will be in you and your joy will be full.