Meditations in 1 Thessalonians
Part 3 : 23. Be Joyful
1 Thess 5:16-18 Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
I must confess in passing, I sometimes wonder how those who divided the Scriptures up into verses did so and particularly here why they separated off “pray continually” unless they felt that it was so important that it needed marking out on its own. Very well, we shall deal with each part alone. First of all, “Be joyful always”.
Again, while I’m in a confessing mood, I confess this reminds me of Snoopy Cartoons where I think the girl would say to the others sometimes, “Be of good cheer”, and it was almost a cynical mocking phrase. At first sight (and this just reveals my ignorance) this seems a little glib, and yet I know the apostle Paul doesn’t do glib. So what does he mean? Does he mean be happy all the time? What is the background of this word ‘joyful’?
Intriguingly in the Law, speaking of the Feast of Tabernacles, the Lord says through Moses, “Be joyful at your Feast,” (Deut 16:14) and then “For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” (Deut 15:15b) The first verse does seem to suggest happiness and merriment but the second verse seems to suggest that joy can come in different levels and there is a level that is deeper, more meaningful, more prolonged.
But there is something in those verses that may become clearer with some other verses: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Mt 13:44) The joy or happiness came as a result of finding treasure. The joy or happiness or even merriment in the Deuteronomy verses comes as a result of feasting and the feasting comes as a result of a good harvest. Joy has a cause always. When the angel come to the shepherds after Jesus was born, he declared, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Lk 2:10) The joy within the good news was the arrival of the baby Jesus, the Saviour of the world.
After Jesus sent his disciples out, we read, “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Lk 10:17) Their joy was because they had tasted of the kingdom of God on the earth. When Jesus returned to his disciples after his resurrection we read, “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (Lk 24:40,41) Their joy was because he was still alive.
At the Last Supper there is an apparently odd connection between love and joy: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn 15:10,11) Jesus experienced joy as he kept his Father’s commands of love, and says we can have that same joy.
Now we need to pause to acknowledge that joy is greater than mere happiness. Although the two are almost the same, joy seems a form of happiness that has greater depth of origin and rises to greater height of expression. A dictionary definition of ‘joy’ is ‘a very glad feeling; great pleasure; delight.’ Joy bubbles out and comes from a well founded reason. When a baby is born we aren’t just happy, we are full of joy. When an athlete breaks a world record, they aren’t just happy, they are full of joy. When a football team scores the winning goal of a Cup Final, in the last minute, they aren’t just happy, they are full of joy.
So what is our joy, our very glad feeling, our delight? It must be the realization of the wonder of our salvation. Within that must come, not only the knowledge of His saving grace that brought us to Himself, but the wonder of His Holy Presence within us and the fact that He is there for us and leading us into His perfect purposes for us. Whatever happens today, He will be there for me, working to bring good for me (Rom 8:28) and He will continue to do this until the day I die and go to be with Him for ever. If that knowledge doesn’t bring me joy it means either I haven’t yet appreciated the wonder of it all, or I have allowed the enemy to distract me with lies. Work on coming to an ever greater understanding of these things we’ve just said and when necessary (which is always) “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee.” (Jas 4:7)
With the Spirit within, joy is part of our inheritance: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.” (Gal 5:22) and “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pet 1:8,9). This joy is not a surface, frothy happiness, but a deep-seated inexpressible and glorious ‘very glad feeling; great pleasure; delight,’ that comes from knowing Jesus, knowing God’s love for us, knowing the power and presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit within us. Prophetically the Son declared about Creation, “I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Prov 8:30,31) There was the Son, full of joy as he worked alongside the Father. Remember what we saw earlier, I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus’ joy comes from working alongside the Father, doing what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:17,19), working in perfect harmony. There is the model for us.