There is a common misconception – even among believing Christians – that the choice to follow Jesus is really a decision to “punch your martyr card.” In other words, some believe that following Jesus is a decision to follow a path of pain, rather than a path of pleasure, a path of denial, rather than one of delight. Nothing could be farther from the truth! The first account of our Lord’s public teaching in Matthew 5 begins with a pronouncement of blessing upon those who follow Him. Keep in mind that the word “blessed” could (and perhaps should) be translated “happy”2:
1 When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to teach them by saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (Matthew 5:1-12).3
Two of the other Gospels, Luke and John, follow this same pattern by commencing with an emphasis on joy. Luke’s Gospel begins with the birth accounts of John the Baptist and Jesus, and both contain joyful responses to the blessings of God:
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah, 40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “ Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? 44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:39-45, emphasis mine).
In Luke 1, joyful praise is given for God’s blessings by Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias. Chapter 2 is also filled with the praises of the angels,4 the shepherds,5 Simeon,6 and Anna.7 In the Gospel of John, the first recorded miracle (sign) of our Lord is the creation of wine from water at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.8 We find in this yet another indication that our Lord’s coming and ministry was intended to bring joy to men.
The purpose of this message is to demonstrate that men and women follow Jesus for pure joy.9 I believe that joy (finding pleasure in God) was a primary motivation for following God in the Old Testament, as well as in the New. By “joy” I refer to the pleasure, the delight, the satisfaction which is the common experience of all those who follow God. Thus, the actual word “joy” may be replaced by one of these synonyms. In this lesson, we will seek to explore how the joy of following our Lord is central to our Christian walk.
The creation of our world is described from various perspectives in the Bible,10 with the most detailed description of creation, from a human perspective, found in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. In the Book of Job, we find this very interesting text which speaks of the joy of the angelic host at the creation of the world:
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you possess understanding! 5 Who set its measurements – if you know – or who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its bases set, or who laid its cornerstone – 7 when the morning stars sang in chorus, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7, emphasis mine)
While God’s creation currently groans over the consequences of sin, a time will come when nature will joyfully cry out in praise of God:
12 Let the fields and everything in them celebrate!
Then let the trees of the forest shout with joy (Psalm 96:12).
8 Let the rivers clap their hands!
Let the mountains sing in unison (Psalm 98:8).
When Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the disciples rejoiced greatly, praising God. The Pharisees objected to this celebration and urged Jesus to stop them. We should not be surprised by our Lord’s answer:
37 As he approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:37-40)
Those who trust in God find great joy in Him.
But may all who take shelter in you be happy!
May they continually shout for joy!
Shelter them so that those who are loyal to you may rejoice! (Psalm 5:11)
You lead me in the path of life;
I experience absolute joy in your presence;
you always give me sheer delight (Psalm 16:11).
Rejoice in the Lord and be happy, you who are godly!
Shout for joy, all you who are morally upright! (Psalm 32:11)
The worship of Old Testament saints is filled with expressions of joy. They greatly desire to worship in His presence.
6 Now I will triumph over my enemies who surround me!
I will offer sacrifices in his dwelling place and shout for joy!
I will sing praises to the Lord! (Psalm 27:6)
1 For the music director; according to the gittith style; written by the Korahites, a psalm.
How lovely is the place where you live,
O Lord who rules over all!
2 I desperately want to be in the courts of the Lord’s temple.
My heart and my entire being shout for joy to the living God (Psalm 84:1-2).
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to the God who gives me ecstatic joy,
so that I express my thanks to you,
O God, my God, with a harp (Psalm 43:4; see also 2 Samuel 6:14-16).
When it comes to joy in worship, I am particularly fascinated by this text in Deuteronomy 14:
24 When he blesses you, if the place where he chooses to locate his name is distant, 25 you may convert the tithe into money, secure the money, and travel to the place the Lord your God chooses for himself. 26 Then you may spend the money however you wish for cattle, sheep, wine, beer, or whatever you desire. You and your household may eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and enjoy it (Deuteronomy 14:24-26).
The Israelites were instructed to go up to Jerusalem11 three times a year to worship. In Deuteronomy 14:22-23, they are instructed to offer their tithes in Jerusalem. In so doing, they shared a meal in the presence of God.12 God knew that the distance might be too great for some to be able to bring their offerings, and so verses 24-26 prescribe an alternative. Those who cannot make the journey with their tithes are to convert their offering to cash, which they will be able to carry to Jerusalem. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they can buy whatever food they desire, including wine, and eat in the presence of the Lord. The point is that they are to do so joyfully. Worship was to be joyful and not a drudgery.
The Word of God (including the Law) was a great source of joy to those who loved Him.
1 How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand in the pathway with sinners,
or sit in the assembly of scoffers!
2 Instead he finds pleasure in obeying the Lord’s commands;
he meditates on his commands day and night (Psalm 1:1-2; see also 112:1; 119:16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 92).
I claim your rules as my permanent possession,
for they give me joy (Psalm 119:111).
As your words came to me I drank them in, and they filled my heart with joy and happiness because I belong to you (Jeremiah 15:16).
Old Testament saints not only rejoiced in the works God had accomplished; they also rejoiced in the salvation yet to be revealed!
9 Their descendants will be known among the nations, their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that the Lord has blessed them.” 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; I will be overjoyed because of my God. For he clothes me in garments of deliverance; he puts on me a robe symbolizing vindication. I look like a bridegroom when he wears a turban as a priest would; I look like a bride when she puts on her jewelry. 11 For just as the ground produces its crops and a garden yields its produce, so the sovereign Lord will cause deliverance to grow, and give his people reason to praise him in the sight of all the nations (Isaiah 61:9-11).
The Old Testament also speaks of joy and joyful praise as a protection from growing cold toward God and falling away:
45 All these curses will fall on you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you would not obey the Lord your God by keeping his commandments and statutes that he has given you. 46 These curses will be a perpetual sign and wonder with reference to you and your descendants. 47 “ Because you have not served the Lord your God joyfully and wholeheartedly with the abundance of everything you have, 48 instead in hunger, thirst, nakedness, and poverty you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. They will place an iron yoke on your neck until they have destroyed you” (Deuteronomy 28:45-48, emphasis mine).
This seems to be the point of Psalm 95 as well. The first part of the psalm is a call to worship; the second part is a warning that seems to be based upon the assumption that worship is neglected:
1 Come! Let’s sing for joy to the Lord! Let’s shout out praises to our protector who delivers us! 2 Let’s enter his presence with thanksgiving! Let’s shout out to him in celebration! 3 For the Lord is a great God, a great king who is superior to all gods. 4 The depths of the earth are in his hand, and the mountain peaks belong to him. 5 The sea is his, for he made it. His hands formed the dry land. 6 Come! Let’s bow down and worship! Let’s kneel before the Lord, our creator! 7 For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture, the sheep he owns.
Today, if only you would obey him! 8 He says, “ Do not be stubborn like they were at Meribah, like they were that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors challenged my authority, and tried my patience, even though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I was continually disgusted with that generation, and I said, ‘These people desire to go astray; they do not obey my commands.’ 11 So I made a vow in my anger, ‘They will never enter into the resting place I had set aside for them’” (Psalm 95:1-11, emphasis mine).
When I think of joy in the presence of God, I am reminded of this text in Nehemiah 2:
1 Then in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought to me, I took the wine and gave it to the king. Previously I had not been depressed in the king’s presence. 2 So the king said to me, “Why do you appear to be depressed when you aren’t sick? What can this be other than sadness of heart?” This made me very fearful (Nehemiah 2:1-2).
Nehemiah was a government official, the servant of Artaxerxes, king of Persia. When he heard from Hanani and others that Jerusalem was still in shambles and that the Jews who had returned to Palestine were in great distress, Nehemiah was deeply troubled and sad. He could not conceal his distress from the king. When Artaxerxes inquired why he was sad, Nehemiah became fearful. Why was this? Because no one was allowed to be sad in the king’s presence. I believe this was not only because sadness in the royal court was contagious, but because sadness reflected badly on the king’s rule. If the king was good and wise, then his subjects should be joyful. Sadness must have been viewed as an indication of poor leadership. Thus, only happy people were allowed in the king’s court.
The same principle applies to the saints’ countenance in the presence of the Lord. People did not go to the temple to mourn, but to rejoice and to praise God for His many blessings. Of course, there were times when sins were confronted and repentance was required. But since God is sovereign over all things, and He is orchestrating all things to bring about His glory and our good, then His people should be joyful when they come to worship Him. This is why joy is such a prominent and recurring theme in the Old Testament.
I have already called attention to the note of joy and rejoicing in the birth accounts in Luke’s Gospel13 and in our Lord’s creation of wine in John.14 In the beatitudes of Matthew 5, the Lord Jesus offers happiness and joy to those who are most aware that they need it. No wonder those who listened contrasted Jesus’ teaching with that of their religious leaders. While they focused on Jesus’ authority,15 I think we can also detect a very different tone in our Lord’s words. The scribes and Pharisees taught and required a legalistic compliance to their interpretations of the Law of Moses; Jesus’ words were characterized by grace.16 The scribes and Pharisees were exclusive, condemning the masses;17 Jesus offered mercy, grace, and hope to those who were “written off” by the religious elite. No wonder His teaching brought joy to those who were willing to accept salvation as a gift, rather than as a merit badge earned by law-keeping.
I want to call your attention to three texts from the New Testament Gospels which instruct us about joy. The first is from Luke 10:
17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “ Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” 21 At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “ I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure” (Luke 10:17-21, NIV, emphasis mine).
Notice the gentle way in which our Lord corrected the seventy-two for rejoicing over the wrong thing. Their joy was initially prompted by the fact that they had been able to exercise power over the demons. Jesus made it clear that the authority was from Him and was not their own. But more than this, their joy should have been over the fact that their sins had been forgiven and that they possessed eternal life. Here is true cause for great joy.
Furthermore, I want you to observe that for which our Lord rejoiced. He rejoiced in the fact that the Father had made His teaching clear to His disciples (little children though they were compared to the wise and learned religious leaders). At the same time, He rejoiced that God had chosen to conceal these things from the wise and learned. In other words, our Lord rejoiced in the Father’s sovereignty in salvation. Most of all, I want you to see that our Lord rejoiced (took pleasure) in the things which gave the Father pleasure. Our Lord’s pleasure was the Father’s pleasure.
Second, let us briefly consider the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. You may recall that a man who was going on a journey entrusted three of his slaves with money, each according to their ability. To one, he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to yet another, one talent. When he returned, each gave an accounting of his stewardship. Notice the contrast between the first two slaves and the third:
20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours’” (Matthew 25:20-25, emphasis mine).
The first two slaves were faithful stewards. They knew that their master expected them to bring a return on the money he entrusted to them. They eagerly set out to produce an increase and then eagerly (joyfully?) presented their master with the increase. Their reward was two-fold. First, both were given additional responsibilities (work) in accordance with their faithfulness. Second, they were both blessed by sharing in the joy of their master. They were privileged to be given more responsibilities, but even more privileged to participate in the joy of their master, which made their work a delight.
With regard to the third slave, we should begin by noting that his master indicted him for being both wicked and lazy.18 He did not do anything to make a profit for his master, but rather buried what had been entrusted to him. In making an excuse, this slave revealed a great deal about himself. He was certainly not fond of his master, and he considered it harsh and unreasonable for a master to expect others to make a profit for him. This slave was punished by being banished from his master’s presence, to live in eternal torment.19
The first two slaves took pleasure in serving their master, and in accomplishing that which pleased him. Their reward was more work, in which they took pleasure and thus gained greater participation in their master’s pleasure. The third slave had no pleasure in his master or in his work and was doomed to suffer eternal misery. I would therefore conclude that the presence or lack of joy in one’s life has a great deal to do with one’s stewardship.
A friend recently told me about a book he read many years ago about how to avoid getting tired. The answer, I was told, was to do what you enjoy. The wicked, lazy servant did not enjoy his master or his work, and so he could not (or would not) find the energy to earn a profit on what had been entrusted to him.
Third, I would call your attention to one of the “lost and found” parables of Luke 15.
3 So Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 Returning home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, telling them, ‘ Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent. 8 “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search thoroughly until she finds it? 9 Then when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘ Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:3-10, emphasis mine).
The scribes and Pharisees did not want their religion to be inclusive; they wanted an exclusive, elitist religion which excluded not only Gentiles but also the unlearned masses.20 It angered them when they saw Jesus associating with sinners. Jesus made His purpose for coming to earth very clear – it was to save sinners:
16 When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:16-17).
Jesus told these “lost and found” parables in Luke 15 to explain the heart of God. He delights in saving lost sinners. Heaven rejoices when a sinner comes to faith. If the scribes and Pharisees did not rejoice in the salvation of sinners, then they were out of step with God and with the heavenly host. The next parable continues to make our Lord’s point.21 It concerns the prodigal son. The father (representing God) rejoices at the return of his son; the older brother (representing the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees) is angered by the celebration of his return. Our joy should be consistent with God’s.
We know that joy is a prominent theme in the epistles of the New Testament as well. Joy is one of the “fruit of the Spirit.”22 No epistle is more joy-filled than Philippians, a letter written by Paul while he was in prison awaiting the outcome of his trial before Caesar. Death was a very real possibility, and yet we read:
17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you. 18 And in the same way you also should be glad and rejoice together with me (Philippians 2:17-18).
1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you (Philippians 3:1).23
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
The other New Testament epistles speak of joy as something which every Christian should experience:
7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold – gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away – and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith – the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:7-9).
Now to the one who is able to keep you from falling, and to cause you to stand, rejoicing, without blemish before his glorious presence (Jude 1:24).
Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready (Revelation 19:7).
Question one: How can we speak of joy when we live in a fallen world, a world that groans over sin and its devastating consequences?
We do not seek to deny that we live in a fallen, broken world, a world where there is suffering, sickness, and death:
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:18-23).
All creation groans because it is suffering from the effects of the fall of man. But it is an expectant groaning, like that of a woman about to give birth. It is one that anticipates a future day of release and restoration. Christians likewise groan, but this is because God’s Spirit dwells within us, assuring us of our sonship, and that our suffering with Christ is so that we may share with Him in His glory:
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) – if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14-17).
These same truths are repeated in slightly different terms in 2 Corinthians 4:16—5:10. We rejoice that we are but sojourners in this world and that soon we who believe will be transformed to dwell forever in the presence of our Lord. In the meantime, we have the joy of being saved and the joy of the presence of God in us through the Spirit. Our joy is in knowing that we are a part of God’s plan of redemption and that we may play a part in seeking the reconciliation of others.
17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come! 18 And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
Question two: How can we speak of joy when those who follow Jesus give up so much to do so?
We know that the path of the disciple of Jesus is not an easy one. Our Lord made this clear to those who wished to follow Him:
57 As they were walking along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus said to him, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 59 Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).
It is true that those who would follow Jesus must deny themselves and take up their cross, but it is also true that this is so they can gain far more than they have set aside:
23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44, emphasis mine).
24 By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure (Hebrews 11:24-25, emphasis mine).
24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, emphasis mine).
From these verses, we may distill a very important principle:
Our Lord does not call men to forsake all pleasure to follow Him; He invites us to enjoy true and lasting pleasure forever by following Him.
Our Lord never takes anything from our hands unless it is to fill them with something better. Whatever we give up to follow Him, God replaces with something far better.
As parents, we try to teach this principle to our children. If we give them an allowance, they can choose to go to the store and spend it immediately on candy or on some cheap toy that is quickly broken. Or, they can deny their desire for immediate gratification and save their money. If they do this long enough, they can buy a pair of skates or a bicycle, something that will give pleasure for a long time.
Think about the sinful pleasures to which men and women are often addicted. Almost without exception (I can’t think of an exception at the moment), these pleasures are momentary. They may not last for a day, and perhaps not even for an hour. Then we must have more. Each repetition of the sin is less satisfying. It is just the opposite with godly pleasures – they only get better, and they last forever.
There are other motivations such as fear or guilt, but one of the strongest and most lasting motivations is pleasure. Let’s face it; we’d rather do what we enjoy than what we dread. But who we are determines what gives us pleasure. The pleasures of the wicked are vastly different from those of the righteous. This is why James can identify “pleasure-seeking” as the source of many conflicts. Sinful pleasures must often be gained at the expense of others:
Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions [pleasures, NASB] that battle inside you? (James 4:1)
Throughout the Bible, we find that doing evil is a pleasure for the wicked. The fall of man in the Garden of Eden occurred because Satan deceived Eve to consider the fruit of the forbidden tree more pleasurable than all the delights of the garden:
6 When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it (Genesis 3:6, emphasis mine).
Eve’s desire for forbidden knowledge was stronger than her desire to please God, and thus to give Him pleasure.
It is not often that we find Joab rebuking David, but in this instance, he has rightly done so, pointing out David’s misguided desires:
2 The king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Go about now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and register the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3 But Joab said to the king, “Now may the LORD your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” (2 Samuel 24:2-3, NASB95)
Many other Old and New Testament passages show how sinful pleasures (or the sinful lack of pleasure in what is good) motivate people to commit sin. I will cite but a few of them:
4 They spend all their time planning how to bring him down.
They love to use deceit [They delight in falsehood, NASB95];
they pronounce blessings with their mouths,
but inwardly they utter curses. (Selah) (Psalm 62:4, emphasis mine)
22 “How long will you simpletons love naiveté?
How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge? (Proverbs 1:22, emphasis mine, see also 2:14; 7:18).
2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding
but only in disclosing what is on his mind (Proverbs 18:2, emphasis mine).
To whom shall I speak and give warning
That they may hear?
Behold, their ears are closed
And they cannot listen.
Behold, the word of the LORD has become a reproach to them;
They have no delight in it (Jeremiah 6:10, emphasis mine).
11 Consequently God sends on them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false. 12 And so all of them who have not believed the truth but have delighted in evil will be condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:12, emphasis mine).
1 But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God (2 Timothy 3:1-4, emphasis mine).
18 For by speaking high-sounding but empty words they are able to entice, with fleshly desires and with debauchery, people who have just escaped from those who reside in error. 19 Although these false teachers promise such people freedom, they themselves are enslaved to immorality. For whatever a person succumbs to, to that he is enslaved (2 Peter 2:18-19).
If the wicked find pleasure in doing evil, the righteous find pleasure in doing what is good:
11 Please, O Lord, listen attentively to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of your servants who take pleasure in showing respect to your name. Grant your servant success today and show compassion to me in the presence of this man.” Now I was cupbearer for the king (Nehemiah 1:11, emphasis mine).
8 I want to do what pleases you, my God.
Your law dominates my thoughts” (Psalm 40:8, emphasis mine)
2 The Lord’s deeds are great,
eagerly awaited by all who desire them (Psalm 111:2, emphasis mine).
35 Guide me in the path of your commands,
for I delight to walk in it (Psalm 119:35, emphasis mine).
1 So then, my brothers and sisters, dear friends whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand in the Lord in this way, my dear friends! (Philippians 4:1)
I must confess it took me a while to really grasp the fact that the best pleasures, the pleasures that we should seek, are really God’s pleasures. Our Lord made this very clear:
“ I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11, emphasis mine).
“But now I am coming to you, and I am saying these things in the world, so they may experience my joy completed in themselves” (John 17:13, emphasis mine).
It is no wonder that in the parable of the talents, our Lord had the master say, “‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master’” (Matthew 25:21, emphasis mine). That is what God has privileged us to do, to enter into His pleasures, His delights, His joy.
Note, too, that this joy is not to be found outside of Scripture, but through the revealed Word of God. In both John 15:11 and John 17:13, Jesus says, in effect, “I have told you these things so that you may have My joy.” Our joy, then, must be based upon what our Lord has spoken, upon His Word, upon propositional statements from God’s Word, rather than upon subjective experience that is independent of God’s revealed Word.24
We need to be careful here that we do not appear to be proposing some kind of clever scheme to get what we want from God. This is the message we often hear from the “good life gospeleers.” They tell us how to manipulate God, assuring us that we will get what we want. God Himself should be our ultimate delight, and because of this, everything that gives Him pleasure should also be our pleasure. This is not a manipulative ploy; it is just the way it is.
And so we see that it is not wrong to seek pleasure, so long as we seek our pleasure in God, and in those things which bring Him pleasure. God should be our great delight. I believe it would be safe to say that anything we desire more than God is an idol.
Let us summarize by saying that those who choose to follow Jesus do so for pure joy. They joyfully forsake lesser pleasures for the pure pleasure of following Jesus. If there is anyone reading these words who has resisted trusting in the saving work of Jesus because you have felt you would have to give up too much, let me assure you that this is a lie. The pleasures of sin are real, but they last for only a moment, and they come at an extremely high price. The pleasures of following Jesus have been paid for by the Savior, and they last forever.
As you would expect, Jesus said it best:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
What kind of life will you choose? Will it be a life of seeking temporal pleasure, without lasting joy and satisfaction? Or will it be to trust in Jesus for the joy of gaining the forgiveness of your sins, and the gift of abundant, eternal life?
From what we have learned about pleasure, it should not be surprising to realize that Satan has made “pleasure” one of his priorities. Temptation is Satan’s effort to convince mortal men that the passing pleasures of sin are superior to the pleasures God offers to those who follow Jesus. Forbidden pleasures are Satan’s specialty. In Proverbs 7 (and elsewhere in Proverbs), Satan’s seductions are portrayed through the imagery of an immoral woman:
“Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (Proverbs 7:18, ESV).
When our children were growing up, we read C. S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” to them. I will never forget how the wicked witch enticed Edward with “Turkish Delight.” It drew him to follow her, and it dulled his heart to the sin he was committing. What a picture of Satan’s schemes to tempt us through seductive pleasures.
Satan has always been skillful in distorting the pleasures and delights that God has for those who trust in Him. The Garden of Eden was a veritable smorgasbord of delights, and yet Satan was able to convince Eve that God was holding back the best. After Satan’s intervention, the forbidden fruit looked good, and the gracious provisions of God looked bad. And so, just as Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, followed by Adam, many people down through the ages have chosen the cheap thrills of Satan as opposed to the supreme pleasures offered by God.
It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of pursuing godly pleasures. Godly pleasures (joy) are the fountain from which many good things flow, just as illicit pleasures are the fountain from which many evil things flow. Let me suggest some reasons why godly pleasures (pure joy) are so important to us as Christians.
First, godly pleasures (joys) are the fountain from which evangelism flows. Evangelism is the overflow of joy in the believer’s life. Beyond this, evangelism is God’s joy, into which the Christian is privileged to enter. God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked:
Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:32; see also 33:11)
God takes great pleasure in the salvation of lost sinners:
“I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent” (Luke 15:7).
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
As we experience the joy of our salvation, it overflows to those we know, and thus we share the joy of God’s salvation with others:
12 Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance!
Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!
13 Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways,
and sinners will turn to you (Psalm 51:12-13, emphasis mine).
Second, worship is the overflow of the believer’s joy. In the Old Testament, the joyful saint could not wait to go to the temple and praise God for His greatness, power, love, and mercy.
I have asked the Lord for one thing – this is what I desire!
I want to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
so I can gaze at the splendor of the Lord
and contemplate in his temple (Psalm 27:4).
How blessed is the one whom you choose,
and allow to live in your palace courts.
May we be satisfied with the good things of your house – your holy palace (Psalm 65:4).
16 Yes, Lord! I am indeed your servant;
I am your lowest slave.
You saved me from death.
17 I will present a thank offering to you,
and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
before all his people,
19 in the courts of the Lord’s temple,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord! (Psalm 116:16-19)
Third, God’s pleasures reveal His will for us. Some Christians are constantly agonizing over God’s will when so much of it is clearly revealed in what gives Him pleasure. God’s delights (and also what He despises) are guideposts along the path of life:
Then Samuel said, “Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as he does in obedience? Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice; paying attention is better than the fat of rams (1 Samuel 15:22).
I know, my God, that you examine thoughts and are pleased with integrity. With pure motives I contribute all this; and now I look with joy as your people who have gathered here contribute to you (1 Chronicles 29:17, emphasis mine).
12 I predestine you to die by the sword, all of you will kneel down at the slaughtering block, because I called to you, and you did not respond, I spoke and you did not listen. You did evil before me; you chose to do what displeases me” (Isaiah 65:12, emphasis mine; see also 66:4).
28 Then Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me. 29 And the one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do those things that please him” (John 8:28-29, emphasis mine).
8 For you were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light – 9 for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth – 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 5:8-10, emphasis mine).
20 Now may the God of peace who by the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 equip you with every good thing to do his will, working in us what is pleasing before him through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen (Hebrews 13:20-21, emphasis mine).
Fourth, God’s pleasures should guide our prayers.
11 Please, O Lord, listen attentively to the prayer of your servant and to the prayer of your servants who take pleasure in showing respect to your name. Grant your servant success today and show compassion to me in the presence of this man.” Now I was cupbearer for the king (Nehemiah 1:11, emphasis mine).
Delight yourself in the LORD;
And He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4, NASB95).
“Who announces the end from the beginning and reveals beforehand what has not yet occurred, who says, ‘My plan will be realized, I will accomplish what I desire’” (Isaiah 46:10).
And whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing to him (1 John 3:22).
From these and other texts, we are assured that God does what pleases Him.25 If we delight in God, then we delight in what gives Him pleasure. When we pray, we will ask for what we desire, and that is what God desires and what He will accomplish. Thus, knowing what pleases God informs us how we should pray and assures us that God will hear and answer our prayers.
Now I would like to say something about revival. We rightly desire revival for our country, for our church, and for ourselves. One aspect of revival is repentance. Times of great revival are times when men are deeply aware of God’s holiness, of their own sin, and of the need for repentance. But repentance is just the proper and necessary prerequisite to joy:
10 Create for me a pure heart, O God!
Renew a resolute spirit within me!
11 Do not reject me!
Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me!
12 Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance!
Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey! 13
Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways,
and sinners will turn to you (Psalm 51:10-13, emphasis mine).
I used to drive a Volkswagen diesel (as did my wife and children). After I sold one of these cars to a friend, someone stole it. They drove it until it ran out of fuel, and then, not knowing it was a diesel, they filled it up with gas. They only got a short distance before they learned that diesels do not run on gasoline; it is the wrong fuel. The point I am making is this: Joy – not guilt, or fear26 – is the fuel that sustains those who follow Jesus. Guilt and fear have their place and purpose, but it is joy that motivates and sustains us in our walk with the Lord Jesus.
I am reminded of Nehemiah 8, where the Jews who returned to their land requested to hear the Word of God. When it was read to them, they began to mourn. But note how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites responded:
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priestly scribe, and the Levites who were imparting understanding to the people said to all of them, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 He said to them, “Go and eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared. For this day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:9-10, emphasis mine).
Mourning and repentance were proper responses to the reading of the Law, for it was through this means that the sins of the people were brought to light. But this was a religious holiday, and holidays were to be times of joy and rejoicing. The people would repent, and they would renew their covenant with God. But when Nehemiah said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” he was saying that mourning should be practiced as the occasion requires, while worshipping God should be characterized by joy. It is joy that motivates us and sustains us.
This is what we desire for our church and for every church that follows Jesus in truth. We desire to see men and women who are characterized by a deep and abiding joy, people whose service is not begrudgingly carried out because it is their duty, but because it is their delight.
I am also reminded of an earlier passage in Nehemiah 2:
1 Then in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought to me, I took the wine and gave it to the king. Previously I had not been depressed in the king’s presence. 2 So the king said to me, “Why do you appear to be depressed when you aren’t sick? What can this be other than sadness of heart?” This made me very fearful. 3 I replied to the king, “O king, live forever! Why would I not appear dejected when the city with the graves of my ancestors lies desolate and its gates destroyed by fire?” (Nehemiah 2:1-3)
Nehemiah had just learned how badly things were going with the Jews who were back in the Promised Land. He was deeply grieved. But Nehemiah had an important job; he was the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. He was never to appear sad in the king’s presence. (Remember that ancient kings had court jesters, not court mourners.) Why would this be? It was because a sad face reflected badly on the king. If the king was doing his job well, then his subjects should be happy. If they were sad, it implied that he was doing a poor job. If men were forbidden to be sad in the presence of an earthly king, how inappropriate is it for us to be sad as subjects of the King of Kings? Joy is the measure of our contentment with our King.
I should probably issue a brief word of caution at this point. Be careful about judging on the basis of appearances.27 Some people express their joy in more exuberant and demonstrative ways, as David did by dancing before the Ark.28 Joy may find different expressions. Thus, you should expect to see joy expressed in more reserved ways in some of the more formal churches, while it may be more enthusiastic and overt in other churches. Let’s be careful not to require everyone to demonstrate joy as we might.
And so we have seen how important joy is in the life of the Christian. May I be so bold as to ask you, my friend, “How is your joy?” Do you find yourself to be joyful? If not, why not? And what is the source of your joy? Many people appear to be joyful, but their pleasures are not God’s pleasures. I believe that people pursue pleasure as they currently view it. When they pursue pleasure, they do so with their money, with their time, and with their tongues. We talk about the things that give us the most pleasure. We spend our money on that which we believe will give us pleasure. We spend our time on our pleasures. And so, if you want to know what your pleasures are, think about how you spend your time, your money, and your talk.
I doubt that any one of us can come away from this message feeling as though we have passed the pleasure test with flying colors. Every one of us needs to be diligent about enhancing our joy in God, but how does one do that? This is a subject much more vast than the content of just one sermon. But I would turn your attention to a most fascinating Old Testament text, found in the Book of Isaiah:
13 You must observe the Sabbath rather than doing anything you please on my holy day. You must look forward to the Sabbath and treat the Lord’s holy day with respect. You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities, and by refraining from your selfish pursuits [ seeking your own pleasure, NASB] and from making business deals. 14 Then you will find joy in your relationship to the Lord [ then you will take delight in the Lord, NASB95], and I will give you great prosperity, and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.” Know for certain that the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 58:13-14, emphasis mine).29
Isaiah 58 is about fasting, what it is not, and what it is. Fasting is setting aside the satisfaction of lesser pleasures in order to experience a greater pleasure. Thus, one might forego a family dinner at a fancy restaurant in order to have something to give to a needy family down the street. One might forego an afternoon of football to mentor a child.
Our text deals specifically with the Sabbath. God gave the Sabbath to help us learn how to set aside lesser pleasures for the enjoyment of greater pleasures. In Isaiah’s day, as in our own, the Sabbath was being used as a day to satisfy one’s lesser pleasures. Some were doing business on the Sabbath. Others were doing something that was far removed from drawing near to God. In order for us to delight ourselves in the Lord, we must set aside time and energy to do so. That is what the Sabbath was all about.
Now I am fully aware that we do not worship on the Sabbath, nor need we do so.30 But I do believe that Christians should set aside a certain time of the week (perhaps even a certain time of each day) to take pleasure in God. This is a discipline, one that every disciple must learn. We should do this not for the sake of duty, but for the sake of delight. May each of us find ever increasing pleasure in our great and glorious God!
1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 5 in the Following Jesus in a Me-First World series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 15, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 A.T. Robertson writes, “Mat 5:3 - Blessed (makarioi). The English word ‘blessed’ is more exactly represented by the Greek verbal eulogêtoi as in Lu 1:68 of God by Zacharias, or the perfect passive participle eulogêmenos as in Lu 1:42 of Mary by Elizabeth and in Mt 21:9. Both forms come from eulogeô, to speak well of (eu, logos). The Greek word here (makarioi) is an adjective that means ‘happy’ which in English etymology goes back to hap, chance, good-luck as seen in our words haply, hapless, happily, happiness. ‘Blessedness is, of course, an infinitely higher and better thing than mere happiness’ (Weymouth). English has thus ennobled ‘blessed’ to a higher rank than ‘happy.’ But ‘happy’ is what Jesus said and the Braid Scots New Testament dares to say ‘Happy’ each time here as does the Improved Edition of the American Bible Union Version. The Greek word is as old as Homer and Pindar and was used of the Greek gods and also of men, but largely of outward prosperity. Then it is applied to the dead who died in the Lord as in Re 14:13. Already in the Old Testament the Septuagint uses it of moral quality. ‘Shaking itself loose from all thoughts of outward good, it becomes the express symbol of a happiness identified with pure character. Behind it lies the clear cognition of sin as the fountain-head of all misery, and of holiness as the final and effectual cure for every woe. For knowledge as the basis of virtue, and therefore of happiness, it substitutes faith and love’ (Vincent). Jesus takes this word ‘happy’ and puts it in this rich environment. ‘This is one of the words which have been transformed and ennobled by New Testament use; by association, as in the Beatitudes, with unusual conditions, accounted by the world miserable, or with rare and difficult’ (Bruce). It is a pity that we have not kept the word ‘happy’ to the high and holy plane where Jesus placed it. ‘If you know these things, happy (makarioi) are you if you do them’ (Joh 13:17). ‘Happy (makarioi) are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (Joh 20:29). And Paul applies this adjective to God, ‘according to the gospel of the glory of the happy (makariou) God’ (1Ti 1:11. Cf. also Tit 2:13). The term ‘Beatitudes’ (Latin beatus) comes close to the meaning of Christ here by makarioi. It will repay one to make a careful study of all the ‘beatitudes’ in the New Testament where this word is employed. It occurs nine times here (3-11), though the beatitudes in verses 10 and 11 are very much alike.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (electronic version in BibleWorks 6).
3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
4 Luke 2:13-14.
5 Luke 2:20.
6 Luke 2:28-32.
7 Luke 2:38.
8 John 2:1-11.
9 As I say this, I feel somewhat as though I am trespassing on the soil of John Piper, the champion of this great theme of the believer’s delight and pleasure in God. He has written and spoken much on this topic, and thus he may appear to own this theme, but it is a biblical truth, and thus we should all seek to embrace it as much as possible.
10 For example, see Proverbs 8:22-31; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17.
11 At this point in time, it was not known that Jerusalem was the designated place of worship. All they knew was that God would designate a place of worship, which we know was Jerusalem where the temple was built.
12 As my friend, Tom Wright, pointed out, the Israelites brought their tithes, gave them to God, and then sat down at a meal to enjoy what they had offered.
13 Luke 1 and 2.
14 John 2:1-11.
15 See Matthew 7:28-29.
16 See Luke 4:22.
17 See John 7:48-49.
18 Matthew 25:26.
19 Matthew 25:28-29.
20 John 7:48-49.
21 Luke 15:11-32.
22 Galatians 5:22.
23 This sounds a great deal like Psalm 95. Joy is represented as an antioxidant in the Christian life, warding off spiritual sickness.
24 In his October 1, 2006, message on John 17:13, John Piper makes a very strong point of this, refuting those who seek spiritual intimacy with God through a mystical inner experience that is independent of God’s Word. This was in a conference entitled, ‘The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World.’ Piper’s message was entitled, ‘The Supremacy of Christ and Joy in a Postmodern World.’ http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/ EventMessages/ByDate/1828 The Supremacy of Christ and Joy in a Postmodern World/
25 Isaiah 46:10.
26 Or greed. This is also one of the false fuels for the Christian life.
27 See 1 Samuel 16:7; Mark 12:40; John 7:24; 1 Corinthians 4:5.
28 2 Samuel 6:16.
30 See Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16-17.