This past Sunday, I started a month-long sermon series from Philippians entitled “Joy.” Why preach such a series? First, when you read the list of the fruit of the Spirit joy is listed #2 out of 9, right after love (which we know encompasses the greatest command on which all others hinge). With this, we do remember that it is the fruit of the Spirit and not the fruits. Maybe not exactly in the same proportion, but if we are in the Spirit all these traits will grow and manifest. Still, there’s something to say about joy’s placement.
Second, we live in a world where there is a lot of not-joy. Good grief. Watch the news, read a blog, check out a sports message board, listen to your coworkers…listen to your own heart. There is a lot of bitterness, anger, sadness, grumbling, complaining, one-upping, etc., but not a lot of joy. We as followers of Jesus are meant to shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (Philippians 2:15). One of the ways we shine is through true joy as we move away from the not-joy.
Third, we tend to live for whatever we think will bring us the greatest happiness in life. Paul said, “For me to live is Christ” (1:21); but how do we answer that?
For me, to live is _____________________.
Even as Christians, our hearts fill in that blank with things such as family, power/fame, sports, happy memories of the past, money/possessions, pleasure, achievement, or the hope of retirement. None of these are bad in and of themselves, but they’re terrible things for which to live and find happiness. Families argue, children move out, grandkids grow up—the dynamic is always changing. You might be famous until your 15 minutes are up and someone more interesting comes along. Sports are fun and energizing, but teams lose and favorite players get traded or leave. We hope our past memories are happy rather than sad or painful, but we can’t relive them.
Each of these things can bring momentary satisfaction, but they’re fleeting. None of them will stand the test of time the way we desire. They will fail. They will fade. They will move on. And then what? What happens to our joy?
Fourth, personally: I’ve not always been the most joyful person. I have a natural sense of melancholy. If you ask me if the glass is half empty or full, I’m prone to want to dump it out and tell you there ain’t nothing left. Okay, so there is exaggeration in this, but it is easier for me to see the bad rather than the good. But, the more I grow, learn God’s word, and yearn to follow Jesus; the more I realize the need to see the good rather than the bad. So I strive more and more to fight for joy. And I have found that joy is more fun, by the way.
The way I define joy is: being happy through our forward-looking hope in Christ.
So, joy is a feeling not far removed from happiness and satisfaction, but not based in the things of this world. It’s not based on anything I have or have not done in my past. It’s not based on anything anyone else can do or promise, other than one person—the perfect God-man, Savior-King. It is based completely on Jesus, what he has achieved for us through the cross, and what this achievement promises in a glorious eternity. Therefore, this is a happiness and satisfaction that transcends the emotional rollercoaster of life. This is an underlying happiness that holds even when it is time to weep and mourn.
In the opening chapter of Philippians, we find a foundation for both this definition and how to apply it to life and be more joyful on a daily basis. That is: we have joy by looking forward to life beyond life.
In 1:18, Paul says he will rejoice and keep on rejoicing even when things are difficult. Paul, after all, is in prison on account of the gospel. Others are going around preaching Christ as well yet aren’t suffering the same fate. Some do this sincerely; and some are using it as a point of ego-stroking pride and rub it in Paul’s face: “Hey, we’re doing the same thing you did, and we’re free!” Chained and watching others do the work he desired to do, and some with the worst of motives—this could have been a time of great despair for Paul…
And yet, he says: “No. I’m going to rejoice. First of all because the guards that are watching over me are getting to hear and see the gospel, and how else would that happen? And second, because no matter the motive, people are going out and preaching the gospel and Jesus is using it to save people. I hope to soon be free, but as long as Jesus is still working to honor himself and save people, then I’m going to rejoice no matter my circumstances.” (The Mike Paraphrase)
Paul could be happy and content, even in the midst of miserable conditions, because he looked elsewhere. So he said: “My hope is to not be ashamed, but to honor Christ always in my body whether by life or by death. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:20-21).
We see here that first to have joy by looking forward to life beyond life, we look to Jesus and we make it our goal to honor him in everything. This means that Jesus gets to set our priorities: in relationships, at work or school, in rest and play, whatever we need and want to do in a day, Jesus is Lord over all. The thread that runs through everything should be: honor Jesus; to live is Christ.
Then, second, we should desire to be with Jesus in eternity (1:21-23). Yes, to live is Christ, Paul says, but to die, well, that’s gain. I’ll admit these verses disturb me a bit. Paul seems almost giddy about death. Not that he’s depressed and in need of a counselor; not that he’s planning on doing anything to bring a premature end to his life. Paul is trusting that God is sovereign over life and death. He plans on living until God decides to end his time on earth. But, looking towards death, Paul says: “Bring it on.”
If I really think about why this disturbs me, I have to admit that it is mostly the fact that my faith is nowhere near as strong as Paul’s. Within my heart, I still tend to operate in a way that denies Hebrews 2:14-15. I have a fear of death, which in a world and life without Jesus would be a very appropriate fear.
But, Jesus destroyed death’s work, trumped Satan’s power in fear, and turned our greatest enemy not into a friend but a servant. Death now ushers us into the presence of Christ. That dark, painful enemy is now forced to lead us into the realization of our hope of life.
Paul is giddy because he knows there is something greater beyond this life. We’re not talking life after death; rather we’re talking life beyond life. It is a life of no more struggle, sin, temptation, pain, tears, or sorrow. It is a life of glory, perfection, pure pleasure, and unending happiness. As long as we’re breathing on this earth, we have a God-glorifying purpose. When death begrudgingly leads us into the presence of our Savior-King, things suddenly become infinitely and extraordinarily more gloriously better.
What a foundation for joy!
Then, third, rooted in all of this we find our joy leading us to and increasing in our task to serve others and help them progress in their joy and faith (1:24-27). Convinced of God’s sovereign purposes over life and death, as much as Paul longed to go and be with Jesus he knew that until his final breath he still had a purpose in this life: to help others grow and find joy in their faith.
And he tells us in 1:27, that we’re to strive side-by-side together for the same thing.
If we have truly tasted joy in Christ and the hope of eternity then it will propel us outwards. The hope of life beyond life is not some pie in the sky attitude where I get to sit back on my rear and listen to my favorite gospel songs until Jesus returns. If I have the joy and the hope of the Jesus who has saved me and is changing me, then why on earth would I want to keep that to myself?
I should want to help others to know Jesus, to find joy and satisfaction in him, and to long for him. I should want others to experience the same happiness through a forward-looking hope in Christ.
A joy experienced is a joy that longs to be shared.