Too much has been made of the fact that Jesus is never said to have smiled or laughed. That fact has been linked to his description as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ The picture is developed, making Jesus’ life joyless and stressful. That is a gross over-simplification. For one thing, a joyless life would have been a sinful life. Jesus would have been guilty of the worry he forbade in others. Again, he would have fallen short of his servant Paul’s attainment as someone who’d learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Aren’t we told to ‘rejoice always’ and wasn’t that Jesus’ obligation too? Could he have been filled with the Spirit and yet not have known the Spirit’s joy? Could he have given rest and relief to others while remaining depressed himself? Leonard Cohen has a line in his recent concerts when, between numbers, he casually tells the audience that he has studied the world’s great religions. Then he pauses and adds, ‘but cheerfulness kept breaking through.’ ‘All religions make you depressed,’ he’s saying, ‘but a band and pop music . . . the great antidote to despair.’ Get real, Cohen. We Christians are not the ones who’re having to imbibe drugs to get happy. That’s your scene, not ours. I’m no fan of religion. Man’s religions have been his greatest crimes. If I spent months studying religions then I’d certainly be depressed. To me, life is the person of the Lord Christ. The joy of grace through Jesus Christ delivers me from living an unhappy life. I live a real life and so it is a joyful life.
In Luke chapter 10 the Lord Jesus is described in the 21st verse as ‘full of joy’ (the verb used is to exult, to be ecstatically happy). In John 15:11 Jesus refers to his own joy: ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. This clearly implies that the joy Jesus shares with his disciples is, in the first instance, his own personal joyfulness. That is based on his sense of the Father’s love and approval, and his obedience to the Father’s commands. So he had no guilt whatsoever; no sense of shame that we all know as a grievous counterpoise to our best joys. There is a similar reference to his joy in his great High Priestly prayer, ‘I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them (John 17:13). Think of it, that in the Upper Room, after the first Lord’s Supper, and before his arrest and crucifixion, he is praying that his boys should be joyful people. Our joy as Christians is that important.
There can be little doubt that, apart from the brief and intense moment of dereliction on Calvary, Jesus was serene; Jesus was a contented man. He could rejoice in everything that his Father was; he meditated on God as an object of wonder and admiration:
He delighted in his Father’s love and constant help and presence. He marvelled at the beauties and glories of his Father’s creation. He rejoiced in doing his Father’s will and in promoting his glory. He rejoiced in saving his people and in the friendship, company and conversation of those the Father had given to be with him. What joy he had in anticipating his return to the glory he had with the Father ‘before the world began’ (John 17:5). And there was the joy set before him. Such joy was an indispensable element in the psychology of his obedience. He served not as a slave but as a Son (D. Macleod).
This is the Jesus of the gospels, and so this is the Jesus we meet with day by day and especially when we gather in his name, for he is the same today as he was yesterday – this joyful Jesus. Let me turn it this way: what is one of the most beautiful features that we told about him? We are told that he ‘went about doing good.’ There’s that satisfying delight in being a blessing to others. When our Lord had healed a lame man and that person jumped and leaped for joy didn’t our Lord rejoice with him? When the blind saw and their faces lit up at the sight of their loved ones, that couldn’t but have gladdened the heart of Jesus. He was no stoic. I will tell you the way to a happy future. It lies in doing good to others, serving others, not standing on a stage making sarcastic comments about happiness delivering you from becoming a Christian. So at the centre of the Christian faith is a perfectly blessed Lord. This is the one whom God anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows. When we hear someone say, ‘I am the happiest man in the world’ then we must inwardly smile and say to ourselves, ‘No. The Lord Jesus was and remains the happiest person in the universe today.’ The incarnation of heavenly joy is seated in the midst of the throne. It is sin that makes us unhappy, but Jesus had none of that shame. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners and full of heavenly joy. He was the most blessed man who has ever been or who ever will be.
However, my point now is how remarkable it is that our text should be the one and only recorded statement of Jesus being full of joy. The word used here is quite emphatic, as I’ve said. It signifies exuberant ecstasy, leaping for joy. It is the word that we find in his mother Mary’s song, ‘My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ In other words Jesus did not look like one of those Italian impressions of him, a lined heavy face, downcast eyes, gaunt, bearing the weight of the world. Jesus in agony, Jesus on the cross, Jesus with all the marks of physical torture, sweating the bloody sweat, crowned with thorns, pierced by nails, swollen with blows, broken in anguish; that time would come, but it was not here. He was always serious, of course, and what a grace that is, but it is quite possible to be serious and also to be rejoicing in God.
Here we are presented with a Jesus whose hearers would sigh to one another, ‘I wish I had his joy and peace.’ I cannot see how children would be attracted to him if he were a gloomy and brooding man. Would the mothers of children have taken them to some sourpuss? I talked to a preacher on Sunday and he said how much he rejoiced when he was a young teenager to hear that it was Derek Swann who was preaching in his church because he knew he wouldn’t be frightened by him. Again I ask, would Jesus have been continually invited to feasts and weddings if he were a wet blanket? Isn’t he positively contrasted with John the Baptist who lived in the deserts and ate locusts and honey and dressed in a rough cloak made out of camel’s hair? Jesus told his disciples that it was not appropriate for them while he was in their midst to be men who fasted. It would have been as unacceptable as you refusing to eat the fine food offered to you in a wedding breakfast, a snub to your host and a dampener on the delight of the happy pair who are getting married. ‘Religion never was designed to make our pleasures less.’
Let me turn it this way, that if our Lord found heavenly fountains at which he was refreshed during his life, then shouldn’t we find them too? Aren’t there places where we can be revived and can sing? Bunyan tells us that there are wonderful views of glory to be obtained from the Delectable Mountains. Are there times when we can see the towers of the heavenly Jerusalem and long to be there? I am talking about moments of high assurance of faith. Jesus is the joy of our gatherings. His presence ministering to us lifts our spirits; mere men can’t do that. I can’t do it to you; no human engineering can achieve this, not our clever devices. It is the joy of heaven to earth come down that does it. It is Christ meeting with those who gather in his name. ‘None can cheer the heart like Jesus by his presence all divine’; he revives us; his joy is our strength. This is expressed in one of my favourite hymns of John Newton:
How tedious and tasteless the hours,
When Jesus no longer I see;
Sweet prospects, sweet birds and sweet flowers
Have lost all their sweetness with me;
The midsummer sun shines but dim;
The fields strive in vain to look gay;
But when I am happy in him
December’s as pleasant as May. – John Newton
Jesus Christ the joy giver. Also we are told that Jesus rejoiced in spirit Now the N.I.V. takes this to refer to the ministry of the Holy Spirit and it tells us that Jesus rejoiced through God the Spirit, but there is an ambiguity in the original Greek and I like such ambiguities to be present also in every translation. We are told simply that Jesus rejoiced in the spirit, and this could refer to the very centre of his being, that from his heart of hearts there were ripples of joy that filled every part of him, that there was nothing superficial and external about this joy. This was joy of the fullest, truest, deepest sort. This may be what we are being told here, or that the N.I.V. translation is right and that there was a special dimension of God the Holy Spirit about his joy on this occasion. If that is the meaning then it is so Trinitarian isn’t it? God the Son, by the encouragement of God the Spirit, rejoices in God the Father. I had great delight on Saturday last at the 40th birthday celebrations of my youngest son-in-law Ian. I would hesitate to say that that was joy in the Holy Ghost, though of course the Spirit of God was present with us. However, there are times when I have the privilege of magnifying Christ in this pulpit, or when I hear my brothers praying at the Lord’s Supper standing each side of me and we give out the bread and wine, and then the joy I may know on such occasions as those have a dimension of heaven and the Holy Ghost about it.
However, the ultimate fascination of these verses lies in this, that the actual theme that created such measureless joy in our Lord’s spirit is revealed to us. Why was he by the Holy Spirit filled with joy? ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth (v.21). Jesus knew that God was his heavenly Father. His joy was rooted in his trust in God. He kept trusting in God through thick and thin. He had total peace about this reality, that he could look into the smiling face of the God of the universe and call him ‘Abba Father.’ He knew with confidence that he was God’s holy child, and we can know that too. ‘I praise you;’ I, so small and insignificant, with my brief life, who spring up in the morning, mature by noon and die by nightfall: God, measureless in power and grace, without rivals, without beginning or end of days, limited only by his own will to do anything, Creator and Sustainer of all we see (and vast recesses of the cosmos that we cannot see and struggle to imagine), all have been made by him. Yet I, a speck, can address the Almighty and call him my Father praising and rejoicing in him, and he hears me! He is pleased with my delight! That is the foundation of joy; no joy without that.
– Geoff Thomas